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Have Them Fight God: Everything Starts on Yancy Street

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. The concept of articles about the Fantastic Four was invented by Rich Johnston. No infringement is intended.

Today it’s…

Spider-Man #90

Spider-Man_Vol_1_90

… from April 1998. A Spider-Man/Fantastic Four team-up with a difference.  

Written by Howard Mackie. Penciled by John Romita Jr. Inked by Scott Hanna. Coloured by Gregory Wright. Lettered by Kiff Scholl. Edited by Ralph Macchio.

ONE

This issue is a prelude to an event called ‘Identity Crisis’ which….WAIT! STOP! COME BACK! It’s alright. It’s alright. Different ‘Identity Crisis.’ This one’s a bit of harmless fluff about Spider-Man dressing up in four different costumes as part of an elaborate plan to beat a murder rap. It’s bags of fun. Fun which I’m over-simplifying it a little, as Spidey doesn’t just adopt four new costumes but four new names, four new personae, four new fighting styles, and three new speech patterns. The costumes are what matters here though, as this issue is the origin of one of them.

The ‘Hornet’ costume he gets given by a friend, the ‘Ricochet’ costume Mary Jane puts together in a charity shop, the ‘Prodigy’ costume he and MJ design together, and the ‘Dusk’ costume is inherited from the figurehead of a revolutionary uprising within a universe of antimatter. Only that last costume is thought to need a whole introductory issue rather than a brief introductory flashback, which probably sounds fair enough until you know that the look the spider-spouses collaborated on is the one that involves Peter slathering himself in gold body paint and gluing on a big fake nose. My opinion on how entertaining their marriage is to read about could be completely reversed by twenty pages of them workshopping that. Trying on different noses. Brilliant.

But this issue is about introducing the Dusk costume, so let’s try concentrate on that. Which won’t be easy because the issue doesn’t. Before it gets to Dusk it introduces another new costume that’s got nothing to do with any of this. Another new costume that serves no narrative function whatsoever and which only gets referenced once in the text. “A little costume change,” notes Peter as he takes stock of the effects of being converted into anti-matter and crash-landing on an alien world. After that no more is said about it. Not much is shown of it either. Three pages pass between Peter noticing that he’s wearing something different and us getting a proper look at what it is he is wearing.

littlecostume   

That one panel, bunched up at the top right of a page, is as good as it gets for full-length looks at this outfit, which is then just shown in head shots, long shots and ass shots for another four pages before he changes out of it and into into the Dusk clobber. There is an implicit rationale for the design – Peter has been gifted part of the Dark Force of a vigilante called SHOC and this get-up shares some features with SHOC’s costume to the extent that it’s monochrome and John Romita JR-ish – but it’s still incredibly eccentric. We’re given a new costume for Spider-Man that isn’t talked about or shown off, and we’re given it in an issue whose purpose is to introduce a different costume for Spider-Man. What’s going on there?

I’ve got two guesses! Maybe you could look this up somewhere, but guessing is fun. One is that Romita Jr designed this costume for the ‘Identity Crisis’ event without it having been explained to him that the concept wasn’t ‘four different Spider-Mans’ but ‘Spider-Man dressed up as four different people who aren’t Spider-Man.’ The mix-up having left him with a spare spider-look, he decided to get some use out of it here whether the story called for it or not. Does that sound plausible? I don’t blame him at all if that’s how it went. This costume really is pretty cool. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner – the symbiote costume, the Future Foundation costume – and this is no exception.

My other guess would be that JRJR was maybe just trying to put off drawing the Dusk costume for as long as possible because it’s a bit shit. It’s a featureless silhouette, such as could only be of any possible interest as a move in the Anish Kapoor/Stuart Semple artwar, and it’s got those stupid flying squirrel wings that join your arms to your legs. You know the things – Banshee has them sometimes and Spider-Man threatens to go that way whenever his armpit webs are getting out of hand. Here they’re even worse than usual. Take a silhouette, join its arms to its legs by big flaps of material, and put it in an action pose and all you’ve got’s a big ol’ blob. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner and this is the exception.

I might hate the Dusk blob but it means a lot to the people of Tarsuu, the planet within the Negative Zone where all this is going on. There’s a heroic rebellion against an evil empire underway round those parts and Dusk was its inspirational leader until he went missing and a second Dusk took on the identity. That second Dusk  gets wounded in this story and passes the identity to Peter. At this point you’ve probably got suspicious that this is all a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride and that there’s no single individual who is the authentic ‘Dusk’, just a myth and a lineage. Doesn’t seem to be the case though. The leader of the evil empire understands his opponent to be a singular, recognisable individual and the later Dusks to be imposters. The second Dusk believes that the first is out there somewhere, that he’s just keeping his seat warm, and his final words are an unheard repetition of his plea that Peter find the true Dusk.

So becoming Dusk, as it’s explained to Peter, doesn’t mean that you actually become Dusk. Just that you take on his responsibilities and the further responsibility of having a look round to see where the original’s gone. Which I think makes what he does next a little bit rude.

He deals a big blow to the evil empire, which is helpful. Then he gives a speech to the grateful rebels about how Dusk will always be with them when their need is greatest, which is a big fib but also probably helpful. Then he vamooses back to Earth, which is fair enough as it would have been a big ask for “Dusk fights an endless war across the Negative Zone” to be the new status quo of the Spider-Man titles, but the least he could have done is leave the costume behind for a fourth Dusk to stick on. The very least! What’s he need it for back on Earth? He can get new identities just by rummaging around charity shops and gluing on comedy noses, while these beleaguered rebels are short a mythic figurehead now he’s run off with their vantablack pyjamas! What a dick.

Look at what goes through his mind regarding the Dusk role. As he leaves Tarsuu everyone’s cheering him and he’s loving it. As, still dressed as Dusk, he returns to New York with some rescued kids then everyone there is cheering him and he’s loving that too. “I don’t mind basking in a little hero worship for a change,” he tells SHOC. Peter ends this issue thinking about how much he likes being Dusk because everyone likes Dusk.  But once ‘Identity Crisis’ starts then he’ll opt to play Dusk as a sinister crook and disgust himself so much that he’ll start showering excessively. Starting to suspect this boy doesn’t want to be happy.      

Someone else inherits this identity after Peter, so maybe she eventually returns to Tarsuu, finds the original Dusk and sorts it all out. Looking her up, it seems like she falls off a roof and dies in her first appearance so it doesn’t sound too promising.  

TWO

There’s a lot of overlap between the world of Spider-Man and the world of the Fantastic Four and many team-up stories explore that, but there’s another sort of Spidey/FF adventure that works by putting Spider-Man in the parts of their world that are not part of his. Often those stories are written by Dan Slott and often they’re my favourites.

I’m thinking of things like that abortive trip to ‘a weird dimension’ from Spider-Man/Human Torch #2 or the two different jaunts to the Macroverse we see in Amazing Spider-Man #590-1. Stories that have the Fantastic Four going about their most generic day to day work of travelling to new realities with different laws of physics and finding themselves in circumstances where they have to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, some of which will probably be some kind of techno-barbarians who’ve glued canons to big lizards. The sort of FF stories that can become very overfamiliar, but defamiliarised by having Peter Parker along to be freaked out by it all.

HTFGjaunt  

Beyond having Spider-Man be alarmed and refreshed by the technobabble and the Kirby dots, stories that contrast his life with the Fantastic Four’s tend to want us to notice two big differences; Scale and integration. Swapping jobs for a day in that Spider-Man/Human Torch issue then Peter wishes Johnny good luck with saving the city and Johnny tells him he’ll need good luck with saving the universe. We’ll investigate scale below, but the basic idea of having Spider-Man visit somewhere called ‘the macroverse’ is obviously to put forward the idea that he’s stepping into a bigger world.

Integration’s where the real emotional stakes are in contrasting Spider-Man’s life with theirs. His life is defined by a harsh separation of its components and by the horrors that arise from his struggles and failures to keep those walls up. The Fantastic Four’s lives are defined by the absence of those walls. Being adventurers and being a family are the same thing for the FF, family is the word for the adventure they’re on, and so there’s a real poignancy in seeing Peter Parker on a Fantastic Four adventure. They’re inviting him into their family, where they all have reasons to want him, and there are limits to the extent to which he’s capable of accepting. Limits set by his inability to imagine living one life where the pieces fit together. Imagining being five different people is easier for him than that.       

Spider-Man #90 has almost all the features of a story in which Spidey tags along on an FF romp. We open on Yancy Street, part of their New York, not his. Mary Jane immediately understands that they’ve stepped out of their personal story space and opens the issue with the words, “I told you we shouldn’t have gone walking in this part of town.” Sure enough, this part of town soon leads us to the Distortion Field, and the Negative Zone, and Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst and having to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, and everything short of techno-barbarians gluing canons to big lizards.  As soon as he swings down on to Yancy Street then, other than a brief appearance by SHOC, everything he encounters originates from, or is typical of, the Fantastic Four mythos. Spider-Man spends none of this issue in a Spider-Man story.

One odd thing though. The Fantastic Four aren’t in this comic anywhere.

That’s annoyingly disruptive for the rules I’ve chosen for what this project is and isn’t supposed to cover, but really interesting in terms of what it reveals. How does Spider-Man cope with a Fantastic Four crossover to which only he’s shown up?

The answer is “Um…kind of…better?” Or at least with much more comfort and confidence. Part of that is because they’re with him in spirit as a knowledge base; He can remember what Reed once told him about surviving the Distortion Area. He can remember what Johnny once told him about fighting Blastaar. With all these facts in his head he breezes through this issue with aplomb, leaping between worlds and toppling empires without breaking a sweat. He has a lovely time and everyone’s very pleased with him.

If Spider-Man’s life contrasts with the Fantastic Four’s in terms of scale and integration then it’s clearly not the scale part that spins him out. He ignites flames of revolution that burn from world to world without really stopping to reflect that this is an unusual day’s work for him. When it does register then it’s with mild approval. “This is cool! I get to fly… and have an entire world singing my praises!” is as reflective as he gets.  

Spider-Man can step out of his life and into the Fantastic Four’s and it doesn’t rattle him at all. As long as they’re not there. As long as there’s nothing to remind him that the parts of one’s life are parts of a whole.  

THREE

In Onslaught/Heroes Reborn, as I find myself summarising most weeks, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers died, only to be somehow transferred across to a new universe of Franklin’s creation. A lot of things happened and then they sailed back to their original lives in a big space boat.

I am fascinated by every trivial detail surrounding the journey in that big space boat. It feels to me like such a strange and poetic move between the physical and the metaphysical. The heroes who Franklin initially shunted over into his world have different bodies and minds to those that died in their own, so if we grant that he really did save anyone then he can only have done so as an essence distinct from both physicality and consciousness. Those who entered Franklin’s world did so as souls. Then they left it by all physically getting on a big space boat.

How they reenter their original universe is not consistent. The boat explodes and the heroes return home at different times, in different places, with different mental health problems and with differing levels of memory regarding the alternate lives they’ve just lived. Nobody just passes from one world to another as a stable object; They’re run through Google Translate and then run back through it again the other way.

This comic is unusual in that it addresses Spider-Man having been on that boat.

Spider-Man didn’t die in Onslaught, nor did he get reborn in Heroes Reborn. He was kind of just along for the ride. Heroes Reborn: The Return saw him accidentally dragged into Franklin’s universe because he was holding the Hulk’s hair while the Hulk was being accidentally dragged in. Once there he performed his plot function of being an independent witness who could confirm to the Avengers and Fantastic Four that a bigger world existed and they were all from it. Then he stood politely in the background as he caught a lift home. He was with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as they returned. He was on the boat when it exploded in the gulf between realities.

Then next we see him, in relation to these events, is in Marvel Team-Up #6, where it’s still the night of the Heroes return but now Peter is sat at home learning about it with Mary Jane. She’s keen for details and he’s not really got any to give, unable to recall what Franklin’s universe was, how anyone got there in the first place, or who made it back. The most he can manage is to say that it was “Weird. Very weird.” We don’t know how he got from that inter-reality explosion to that sofa, but the process seems to have left him with less than perfect recall of the details. Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #360, we see him swinging about shouting “They’re alive! They’re really alive!” as if this is information which he’s either only just learned or only just been convinced of. Everything suggests that, for Spider-Man, his late game involvement with Heroes Reborn has been left as a bit of a blur.

Here, however, he seems well appraised of the specifics. Passing through the Distortion Area, he thinks to himself, “I recognise [this] place. Made a trip through it not too long ago… during the return of the heroes from that strange universe. I think I heard Reed Richards call this the Distortion Field. A Portion of subspace where matter is converted into anti-matter and vice versa.”

What’s interesting about this isn’t the inconsistency but rather the consistency with how Heroes Reborn frames the Negative Zone. In Heroes Reborn it’s the place you go to remember things that happened to you outside of your life. The Reborn Fantastic Four visited there from inside Franklin’s universe, met Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst, and received visions of their lives in their previous continuity. These visions changed Sue, who would continue to dream of a son she’d met but never had. Later, Reed proves to Tony Stark that their lives aren’t what they thought they were by getting him to carbon date some old rock; dating it within the world showed it to be a sensible age for some old rock to be, but taking it outside of the world and into the Negative Zone to run the test showed it to be less than a year old.       

If the logic of Heroes Reborn positions the Negative Zone as a figurative space between the Fantastic Four’s two lives, the logic of the boat trip home goes further, making it the literal gulf between the two realities in a complex multidimensional geography that brings in the Distortion Area and the literal boundaries of Franklin’s imagination and invokes the Microverse. All these bits of what Sandman calls “psychic real estate” are rezoned as places to be traversed in the act of translating yourself from one person to another. The Negative Zone is established as a space between who you are and who you aren’t. As places to acquire a new identity go, it’s at least as good as the rubber nose factory.    

FOUR

Some things become absurd when you try and systematise them (I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each). ComicVine’s summary of Fantastic Four #29, for example, lists the issue as featuring four different ‘teams’; The Fantastic Four, the Yancy Street Gang, Super-Apes, and Communists.

That FF issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…’ while this Spider-Man issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…Again!” but what event is recurring? Can’t find any Super-Apes or Communists round here.

They’re all over Fantastic Four #29 though. Especially the letters page, the story pages serving almost as a prequel to its debate over how Fantastic Four should address the Red Menace. Alex Nicholson from Nashville wants to see the FF continue to be pitted “against the forces of Communism, which is a much bigger threat to our nation than crime is” while Jim Gibson from Santa Rosa reckons that the book “should quit cutting down the Soviet Socialistic Republic’s leaders.” Jim is concerned that Fantastic Four might start to look a little like propaganda. Surely not!

As ever, the story itself has no interest in considering or discussing Communism as anything other than a Foreign Threat. It likes the idea that it’s Totalitarian, because that’s a bit like Nazis, but that’s about as concerned as it gets with any ideological critique.  But the story is very interested in puzzling through questions such as those raised by Nicholson from Nashville’s letter. Who should the Fantastic Four be fighting? Nicholson’s approach to answering the question is to consider various real world threats (“Crime! The Commies!”) and rank them in order of danger, with the FF best advised to direct their efforts against the most severe. That’s fine as far as it goes, but is sod all help in working out how they should prioritise time travelling Pharaohs and pranksters from the planet Poppup. Where do they fit on your national threat scale, eh Nicholson?

As Superman says in JLA Classified #3, superheroes live in a complex world. Comicvine has it right; Fantastic Four #29 has the Fantastic Four, a street gang, communists and super apes. It has all those things and a real interest in sussing out how they fit together. Does Spider-Man #90 have similar interests, or it it happier to live in the desert of the toybox? Let’s play both stories out alongside each other.

The Spider-Man of Ninety Ninety-Eight visits Yancy Street to investigate some Algerian cuisine he’s read about. The Fantastic Four of Nineteen Sixty-Four visit there to investigate a drastic rise in crime they’ve read about. One is under the impression that they’re someone who gets to go out for a nice meal and the other under the impression that they’re suited to investigating urban crime. Both are swiftly disabused of these notions, Spider-Man by witnessing some teenagers being dragged into another reality and the Fantastic Four by having some cabbages and things thrown at them. Spider-Man throws himself into the portal and the Fantastic Four just go home to have a think.

It starts on Yancy Street for both of them , but it leads them to very different places. On arriving in the Negative Zone, Peter clocks the space war that’s going on around him and thinks, “A good old-fashioned, George Lucas inspired, rebels versus the evil empire rebellion is taking place.” He’s keen to pitch in but unable to tell which side’s which. “Oops! Problem solved!” he says a panel later, “The bad guys would be the ones blasting the buildings with women and children.” His conclusions are shown to be uncannily correct, right down to the rebels being called ‘The Rebels’ and the empire being called ‘The Empire.’

Peter’s journey has two stops; from Yancy Street to the Negative Zone. The Fantastic Four’s has several. From Yancy Street back home to look up who might be behind all this in their Big Book of Baddies, then back to Yancy Street to fight Super-Apes, then to the Moon, then to the Watcher’s home. Each move comes with an escalation of scale; our first visit to Yancy Street deals with spiralling crime so petty that it would be truer to say the area has seen an alarming rise in the prevalence of pranks, our second visit deals with a Communist plot enacted with the help of super-apes, and from there the sky’s the limit.

“Let me warn you that this ship works on magnetic power and can be controlled only by my orangutan!” cautions the Red Ghost, and you’re not going to read a better sentence than that today. Magnets and monkeys lift us off to the moon, where our concerns eventually move beyond the solar system as the Watcher shows off his treasures from other galaxies and our dastardly communist foe falls through one of them and off into infinity.

That’s a move from the criminal, to the super-criminal, to global politics, to the solar system, to intergalactic space, to a vastness beyond knowing; Fantastic Four #29 but every time it gets faster. What’s remarkable though is, as we shift scales, everything remains in play. There’s a little of this in the Spider-Man comic. Peter found himself in the Negative Zone because of his attempt to rescue those teenagers and so, when the rebel leader asks him what he’s doing there, he answers “the protection of innocents” and the rebel leader concludes they are in the same line of work. But other than the endorsement of this uncontroversial principle, there’s no interpolation of the two worlds. Peter is not left with any impetus to fight crime on Tarsuu or incite revolutions on Earth. It starts on Yancy Street, but it will not continue there.

The Fantastic Four issue is the very opposite, in that story then everything is part of everything. Supervillainous microdrones buzz unnoticed around Yancy Street. Familial proximity to supervillains forces Ben to reevaluate his love life. The Russian space program begets super-apes. Super-apes fund street crime. The Fantastic Four may operate more effectively at certain scales, as they abandon their efforts at community policing Johnny comments that he hopes Spider-Man never hears of it, but once again it’s less a matter of scale than of integration. Because what happens on this one New York street happens because of Space Gods and the Cold War and what happens to Space Gods and in the Cold War happens because of one New York street. It starts on Yancy Street and it never leaves.

       

Have Them Fight God: Luke and Danny Destroy the World

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. If DC are putting out FF material now, can I do any less?

Today it’s…

Heroes for Hire #12

Heroes_for_Hire_Vol_1_12

…from June 1998. A comic in which Sue Storm appears in a one panel flashback to something that happened in Alpha Flight.

Written by John Ostrander. Pencilled by Pasqual Ferry. Inked by Jaime Mendoza. Lettered by Jon Babcock. Coloured by Joe Rosas. Edited by Mark Bernardo.

ONE

The phrase ‘Heroes for Hire’ suggests Luke Cage and Danny Rand having Blaxpolitation/Kung Fu Buddy Movie adventures. Marvel almost once put out a collection called Marvel Bromance and the Power Man and Iron Fist issue it would have contained is exactly the sort of Marvel bromance that ‘Heroes for Hire’ brings to mind. But the first series to actually carry the title wasn’t that sort of thing at all. The second wasn’t either. Or the third. Comics called Heroes for Hire are never what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘Heroes for Hire.’

That said, this particular series, which ran between ‘Ninety-Seven and early ‘Ninety-Nine, did have Luke and Danny. Not only that but they both joined, resigned from, and rejoined this iteration of Heroes for Hire frequently enough to be considered the book’s leads. But…look. This is a series in which Luke Cage is collaborating with the Master of the World to kill off seventy percent of the world’s population in as hygienic a way as possible while Danny’s busy preparing for the culmination of his entirely separate plan to destroy all technology and impose an absolute monarchy across the face of the Earth. The Heroes for Hire are open for business, but it is far from business as usual.    

What’s changed the economic conditions so drastically is Onslaught/Heroes Reborn. Like Thunderbolts, this comic launched into a Marvel Universe where the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are thought to have died in that event. Also like the Thunderbolts this version of Heroes for Hire is offered as the sort of institution that might rise to take the place of those fallen Great Houses. Where it differs from Thunderbolts, however, is in that that superhero team secretly exists to fulfil a villainous agenda, while this superhero team exists to fulfil LOADS of villainous agendas.  

The stated agenda of Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch, is not a villainous one. True, he eventually pitches in with helping the Master of the World try to become the master of seventy percent fewer people, but it doesn’t look like that was his goal from the start. Jim’s been left running Oracle Incorporated, Namor’s surface world corporation, in light of Namor’s ‘death’ and Namorita’s efforts to cover it up. Over the course of the run we learn three things about how he’s making use of the company’s resources; that he’s not been directing them to the environmentalist causes they’re intended for, that he’s been buying enough minoxodil to grow a beard on an android, and that he’s set up these Heroes for Hire.  

The times are dark and hopeless and people need heroes to inspire them, reason both Jim and Danny. Danny’s response is to set in motion the unstoppable process of aligning our reality with that of K’un Lun, bringing about the end of the age of science and the eternal reign of the Dragon King over all nations. He later admits this was a bit of an overreaction. Jim’s response is to start up a new superhero team, one that will work “not as vigilantes, but as hired employees for those needing help, working for a nominal fee” with the nominal fee going to charitable causes.

Now, while not as out there as the whole ‘eternal reign of the Dragon King’ stuff, I still think this is an eccentric model. Jim’s goal is to inspire people with heroic displays, but he’s built in an pecuniary transaction that the ‘nominal’ bit admits is unnecessary. The helping people in need bit? Fine. The donating money to charity bit? Fine. The association of those two into “We’ll help people in need if they donate to other people in need”? A bit weird.

Which is perhaps why nobody’s quite got their head around Jim’s big idea. The team’s first mission is just them hearing some scientists are in trouble and rushing right off to save them with nary a contract being signed. Come the second issue then the wicked Nitro is taunting a SWAT team by telling them they’re not paid enough to stand against his explosive evil, when Danny leaps into action with the words, “Some of us just do it for fun!” Danny, Danny, Danny, what are you doing? You’re pretending to be here to garner charitable donations while secretly working to assemble a round table of warrior knights that will enforce the Dragon King’s autocratic will. Don’t go complicating things further by putting it about that this is all for larks!

We get four issues of superhero punch-ups before anyone presents themselves in any sort of ‘client’ role. It’s Sersi in issue five, who is very keen to transmute objects into gold as payment while the Heroes are very keen to tell her that the fee can be waived. After her the next formal client we see is a kid in issue eight who Luke charges a buck. Namor comes back in issue nineteen, checks in on how Jim’s been running his corporation, shuts the whole enterprise down and cancels the comic.  

It’s fair to say then that what makes this book a book about hireable heroes is less to do with their direct relationship with money and more to do with their relationship to being on a team. Deadpool explicates things on issue ten’s cover when he turns up saying, “Somebody call for a temp?” He has understood this book perfectly. This is a book about casual labour.

The Great Houses have fallen. The big employers have gone. But if we’re going to imagine the power structures of the Marvel Universe as a labour market then we have to remember that what us real humans typically want from a labour market, a wage, isn’t something that superheroes ever really need unless they’re in stories specifically about getting paid. Most of the time in superhero universes then money invisibly takes care of itself and the real wealth is the sense of one’s self as a valid and meaningful hero. The measure of how much a superhero signifies as a self-actualised individual, the semantic weight of the symbol on their chest, is the capital produced by the Marvel and DC Universe’s internal fictional economies.

What we’ve got here then, is a look at being a superhero under unstable conditions in the superhero sector. The superhero-and-related-professions sector, really, as Bambi Arbogast and Jennifer Walters are here in office roles and Jane Foster’s here as a medic.   

Nobody is on this team for long. Deadpool’s here for two issues. The Hulk’s here for one. Scott Lang is on the team from the start, but nobody notices him until issue six and then shortly afterwards he has to take extended periods of absence due to childcare issues. Hercules drifts in and out, leaving the first time because he got drunk and the second because he got distracted. Jen has to negotiate to stay on her hourly legal rate when pitching in with superheroics. Dane Whitman finds himself trying to juggle two jobs once the Avengers are back. The doors revolve so fast that when Danny, the leader of the team, quits in issue eight it gets presented in a perfunctory flashback.    

The White Tiger’s employment status is particularly interesting. If you’re anything like me then you might sometimes get a bit confused about Marvel’s five different White Tigers, but this one’s easy to remember – this is the one who is LITERALLY A TIGER. A tiger who can adopt human form and an attendant human-ish consciousness in order to do superheroing and get in inappropriate love triangles. I bet she’s only on the books when she’s human.    

The issue we’re talking about today, a Double-Sized Anniversary Spectacular, finds the series at some sort of equilibrium. We’ve got a sense here of who officially ‘counts’ as having been a member of this team, a sense arising partly from which of them show up for the anniversary issue and partly from which of them the Master of the World has troubled to make evil duplicates of. We’ve also got everyone’s cards on the table; Danny has half-apologised for inflicting a mystical dictatorship on the world but said there’s not much he can be expected to do about it now, while Luke is about to reveal that he was only pretending to want to dispose of most of humanity even if he does still think there’s a lot to the idea. Issue twelve is the first point in this series where we’ve got a clear idea of who this book is about and what they all want. The only point, really, as after this then we’re into the chaos of how they adapt to a world in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four have returned. This comic looks a lot like a big climactic showdown, but really it’s an island of calm.

TWO

How much does it matter to people who’ve been in the Fantastic Four that they’ve been in the Fantastic Four?

Here in issue twelve we, briefly, have a concrete sense of who this book’s heroes are; Iron Fist! She-Hulk! Black Knight! Thena! Hercules! Luke Cage! The Scott Lang version of Ant Man! The Jim Hammond version of the Human Torch! The LITERALLY A TIGER version of the White Tiger!

That means a whole third of this line up are people who have, by this point in their lives, been members of the FF. Two of them, She-Hulk and Ant Man, will be again, on the same squad no less. When that day comes it won’t particularly matter to either of them that they’d been Heroes for Hire together. That’s as it should be, as this book ends with a decisive “oh well then.” Namor sells the company and everyone goes their separate ways, Luke and Danny resolving that this will have no effect on their friendship and everyone else just being quietly dismissed with a “see you round, maybe” from Danny. Nobody leaves with any sense that having been part of the Heroes for Hire was a part of who they were. It was only ever just a gig.

What then, for the three (Luke, Jen and Scott) who have spent time  in the FF, did that time represent? Was that something that was just a gig for them, or something that they’ve carried with them as part of their identities?

Previous team affiliations are very important here. The whole logic of Namor trusting (to a point) Jim to run his corporation comes from them having been Invaders together, and this issue taps into that with Jim taking command and the team feeling all inspired as they imagine how it would have felt to serve with him in WWII. Having been an Invader matters in this book.

As does having been an Avenger. Dane is forever knowing important information because he was once an Avenger or holding people to the standards he would have expected from them back when they were Avengers. Then, once the Avengers are back and reformed, the Heroes for Hire frequently find themselves short-handed as their roster struggle to manage their commitments. Hammond’s grumpy about everyone being off doing Avengers stuff in issue eleven as they absent themselves for Busiek’s tellingly named ‘Once an Avenger…’ arc, and then again in issue thirteen as Jen and Herc wander off to help out with what’s going on in Waid’s Captain America. Only one of them wanders back.     

People who’ve been Avengers or Invaders want to talk a lot about those associations, but at no point do the three Fantastic Four members feel like talking about that being a thing they have in common. It comes up for each of them individually though. For Scott, and his daughter Cassie, it’s a very material concern. They’re not happy living in the Oracle Corporation’s HQ but, well, they were previously living at Four Freedoms Plaza and that’s not an option now. That their roles with the Fantastic Four have been taken from them is what’s put them in these circumstances.

For Jen it comes up as part of her reluctance to work on the team in a superheroic role. “I’ve done the group thing with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four,” she says in issue eight, I’m here strictly in a legal capacity.” It fits into her sense of identity in terms of where she sees herself in her career.

Most interesting is how it comes up with Luke. That happens in issue nine when Jim’s wondering if Luke’s been dragged off to Busiek’s Avengers book with everyone else. “Cage was never part of the Avengers, Mr Hammond,” Mrs Arbogast corrects him, “He was part of the Fantastic Four.” Not having been an Avenger is is presented almost as a corollary of him having been part of the FF. Arbogast has a strong sense of what it means to be aligned with a Great House, and of which Luke is aligned with. I love the irony of this in light of how firmly Luke will eventually find himself cast in the role of the One True Keeper of Avengers Values.

People in this series then have very pragmatic takes on their own involvement with the Fantastic Four. Yet there’s a real mythologisation of the Fantastic Four as an institution.

“The Avengers are dead, the Fantastic Four are dead,” complains Dane in issue two, “I have no money, no job, no purpose.”

That a team he never had anything in particular to do with is gone is his second biggest problem. Higher on the list than the money, job and purpose stuff. A sense that there is something wrong with the world is the backdrop to this series and the absence of the Fantastic Four comes up every time that wrongness is discussed.

That’s where the characters of Heroes for Hire seem to be with the FF. That Sue, Reed, Ben and Johnny are gone from the world represents a catastrophic existential shift. But that two of their own number once filled in for Ben and one of them once filled in for Reed… those were just gigs.

THREE

Although She-Hulk has been in the book for a couple of issues now, this is the point where Jen begins the character arc that will see her through to the end of the run. Before we can talk about that though there’s something you have to know.

This comic hates her. Really hates her.

Take this sequence, where Jen’s facing off against a duplicate of the Hulk, looking confident and assured that whatever version of the Hulk this is, she can handle the situation.

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She’s then just punched in the stomach in a panel that doesn’t look anything like superheroic action.

Because this is how superheroic action looks in this comic…

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And this is the punchline to Jen’s conversation with the duplicate Hulk…

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That’s just a woman being punched in the stomach, that is. Her cheeks comically inflating as the reader is invited to enjoy her being punished for her smugness and presumption. The pleasures being offered by the two depictions of violence couldn’t be more different.    

Whatever has she done that’s made the creators suppose that her humiliation there will be a satisfying moment?

Part of it is that, by the time she’s introduced, the book has become acutely aware of the fact that it’s called Heroes for Hire and that nobody in it is motivated by money. Jen therefore gets the job of being the one who cares about money. You can see the logic. ‘She-Hulk is a lawyer’ is a thing. ‘Lawyers are greedy’ is a thing. So we get a greedy She-Hulk who’s here because the Oracle Corporation made her a better offer than the DA’s office and who does not take her eye for a moment off how much she’s getting paid for all this.

There’s also a lot of awkward, and perhaps thankfully not unpacked, stuff about her gender identity – Mrs Arbogast refusing to consider her a ‘lady’ – but to be honest this series will beat her with any stick that’s to hand. There’s a scene where the narration boxes are endorsing the idea that her meanness and size identifies her as being a Skrull, when push comes to shove and…

…oh. Before I can tell you about that, I have to talk about the narrator. Heroes for Hire has a sense of itself as a retro comic. We’ll talk about to what extent that’s true in the next section, but we know that’s part of the remit here because issue eleven opens with narration about how “people say this is a ‘retro’ type comic.” And we know what doing a retro type Marvel comic involves, don’t we? Only the sensational stylings of Smilin’ Stan’s blistering baloney, True Believers!

Stan-Speak is what this book seems to call for, but what John Ostrander delivers is something far more fun. Ostrander gives us a narrator who’s trying to be Stan but who hasn’t quite understood what’s being asked of him and is spiralling wildly out of control. More than one issue involves the narrator in a genuine state of panic that the dangerous events unfolding are going to result in everyone’s death and his own unemployment. For one issue he decides to withhold useful information from the reader and have a fun quiz instead. Stories that start in medias res see him furious with the reader for turning up late and trying to hurry things along by asking any New York based readers to skip text boxes explaining local features. Much confusion arises from him inviting the reader to put themselves in the White Tiger’s place and then getting in a flap about whether or not the reader is literally the White Tiger (they are not. The White Tiger is LITERALLY A TIGER).   

The chaotic narration and the comic’s poor treatment of Jen come together in an incredible scene that might genuinely be one of my favourite ever She-Hulk fourth wall breaks as it also brings together her metafictional awareness with her legal role.  

Yes. She-Hulk fires the narrator.

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It’d be nice if the comic got more sympathetic to her after that brilliant play for control, but a text’s voice is not only expressed through narration. Two issues after this she’ll be drawn flouncing absurdly off while Luke makes shrugging “Dames, eh?” gestures at some random bloke. Heroes for Hire continues to hold her in a pointedly gendered disdain. This, at times self-aware, conflict between She-Hulk and the comic she’s in is the backdrop to the weird character arc that begins here in issue twelve.

It concerns her attitude to ex-cons. An attitude that’s very distinct from her attitude to anyone else that’s doing wrong. She’s the very first to tell Jim Hammond that he shouldn’t feel bad about almost destroying the human race and doesn’t seem bothered in the least by Danny Rand compelling all to bow before the Dragon King. Her heart bursts with forgiveness for any wrongdoers who haven’t been tried, convicted and sentenced. But as regards anyone who’s ever been through the criminal courts and been found guilty, She-Hulk’s putting the vert in Javert.

The arc starts here with Danny incredulous that Luke might have betrayed him. “He’s an ex-con, what do you expect?” she says, with poor Scott Lang stood right there. The arc ends with her speaking up for Luke and Scott to make sure they get their severance packages in the final issue.

What happens in between to change her mind seems to be one adventure and one date with Luke Cage, both in issue seventeen. The adventure sees them rescue several girls who’ve been kidnapped to serve as a harem by a couple of teenage terrorists. Luke strips the boys to their boxers and has the girls spank them. It is this “nasty sense of justice” that causes Jen to start to warm to him, even though one of the abductors is shown to be very much enjoying his punishment. It is uncomfortable.

Having won her favour with his ability to organise Abu Ghraib-esque spectacles of atrocity, Luke then takes her out for a meal and tells her his origin story. She listens attentively and then starts talking about the mechanics of them having sex. Immediately. No “I see now that people have the capacity for change.” No “I see now that the US justice system isn’t perfect and, y’know what, there might just be a racial element to that.” None of that. Straight to, “I don’t break. And I’m looking for a man who doesn’t bruise when I hold him tight.” It is uncomfortable.  

FOUR

Although a flashback to Sue’s adventure in John Byrne’s Alpha Flight is what qualifies this comic for inclusion in this project, there isn’t terribly much to say about that flashback itself. Yet Byrne’s fingerprints are necessarily all over the continuity of a book that is essentially a confrontation between a baddie he invented in Alpha Flight and a corporation in invented in Namor. The prevalence of Byrne material brings us into a very Eighties space, as do Luke and Danny themselves since nobody until Bendis will solve the problem of moving either beyond where Priest left them.

One more important Eighties element factors in. John Ostrander’s writing this book. We know what we want from Ostrander here, don’t we? Mark Bernado, the editor who assembled the creative team, wanted him because he knew he was “great with juggling lots of characters in a mission-orientated setting from his days writing DC’s Suicide Squad” and so much of this book makes sense when you realise that Marvel fancied this as their version of the Squad. The unstable cast. The extent to which everyone is both morally and operationally compromised. Even the way this book sits in relation to Onslaught/Heroes Reborn recalls Suicide Squad’s relationship to Crisis on Infinite Earths.  

A lot of fun can be had playing with how this sits next to DC material. We’ve got the adventures of the Oracle Corporation here as a follow up to the run that established Barbara Gordon as Oracle. That’s pleasing even before you get to that fact that the Oracle Corporation has a relationship with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing’s PI firm; Nightwing restorations.

So that’s a big wodge of Eighties material informing a book with a Sixties-style narrator who isn’t really a Sixties-style narrator at all. How that guy works becomes clear when Deadpool joins the cast and the narrator announces that there’s no way he’s going to compete. The narrator that She-Hulk fires is a post-Joe Kelly version of Stan Lee.

Because that’s the amazing thing about this volume of Heroes for Hire, and this issue especially, the way that it’s a massive nexus of anything that could possibly be an influence on it. Think of something that might have been informing a superhero comic in Nineteen Ninety-Eight. It’s in here somewhere.

Watching the art provides the big clues. Ferry and Mendoza start this run serving up the extremities of Nineties Image books. Their early Hercules looks like the kind of dude who’d stand at the back in Gen 13 and their early White Tiger is an unsolvable knot of Liefeldian jumblewumpf.  

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There’s none of that by the time we get to issue twelve. Its spaceships might still be zooming around a cosmos of limitless speedlines and crosshatching, but everything surrounding its human figures has calmed the fuck down. There’s a resurgent sense of ‘classicism’ happening around Mark Bagely on Thunderbolts and George Perez on Avengers and a sense of the collapse of Heroes Reborn having represented a final failure of the extreme early Image style. Looking at the compositions here and they’re very comparable to how Howard Porter’s JLA is looking. You could hand someone this and the first couple of issues of ‘Rock of Ages’ and they would absolutely tell you that they were the same sort of thing.              

As much as this comic is trying to present the recent past through a reinvention of the distant past, there’s so much here that’s forward looking. The very idea of the Corporate Superteam will be a huge concern in the decade ahead, from Milligan and Allred’s X-Force to Arcudi and Huat’s Doom Patrol, so Heroes for Hire is undeniably ahead of its time on that one. 

This is an artefact from an interesting and uncertain time for Marvel. It was obvious that the Nineties were dying but they weren’t sure what came next. They’d narrowed it down to either the Sixties, the Eighties or the Twenty-First Century but were reluctant to commit.   

Have Them Fight God: Marvel’s Descendants

Last year I read every Fantastic Four comic and posted four thoughts about each. Or so I thought. Turns out I missed a couple. Let’s finish them off quick.

Today it’s…

What If? #114

whatifsw114

… from November 1998. A comic in which Secret Wars was a one way trip. 

Written by Jay Faerber. Pencilled by Gregg Schigiel. Inked by Jose Marzan, Jr. Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos. Coloured by Paul Tutronie. Edited by Frank Pittarese.

GLOSSARY

Secret Wars I: 1984 miniseries/action figure tie-in in which loads of heroes and villains went to a composite alien world to beat each other up.

The Marvel Universe: Fictional construct originating in Fantastic Four #3

Snake Mountain: Skeletor’s gaff.

Hamilton and The Descendants: Historically revisionist musicals.

J2: The son of the original Juggernaut.

ONE

Why do I think the Marvel Universe is a story about the Fantastic Four?

Is it because they’re its starting point, the root which all has either grown from or been grafted to? I don’t think so. Fairly often in these pieces I will pretend that that is the reason but each time it will be a fib. Because I’ve always thought the Marvel Universe was a story about the Fantastic Four and I was neither there for the sixties nor born knowing any of that stuff.

My sense of what’s central in the Marvel Universe, like anyone’s sense of what’s central in a massively multi-authored, multi-decade continuity, comes from my formative readerly experiences of it. There are people out there somewhere who, in their bones, feel that all Marvel History exists to provide deep lore for Comet Man. There are people out there somewhere who privately divide all Marvel’s characters up into Werewolf by Night, Werewolf by Night’s supporting cast and Werewolf by Night’s extended supporting cast. Those people don’t have the luxury I do of being able to pretend their focus is based on the facts of the text’s generation, but they’re not wrong.     

It is easy to explain why I used to think the primary function of the DC Universe was so that Barbara Gordon had a place to keep her stuff. On the two occasions in my life I’ve been most invested in the DC Universe, the late nineties and the mid 00’s, Barbara Gordon was the most central and most interesting character. Oracle, Oracle’s supporting cast and Oracle’s extended supporting cast felt like the natural and obvious division of the DCU.

Yet, with all the love in the world, it would be hard to think of the Fantastic Four as having been consistently the most central or interesting characters though most of my time reading Marvel. We’ve established that I wasn’t there for the sixties. Why do I think the Marvel Universe is a story about the Fantastic Four?    

It goes back to “Why do I think there is a Marvel Universe?” I suppose. I didn’t always. For the first eight years of my life my imagination was like one of those bootleg action figure blister packs you see nowadays, or like the LEGO Batman movie.

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Everything was part of everything and I was genuinely confused as to why Superman wasn’t in my Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps deck. I lacked the conception of it being a Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps deck that would have guided me to an answer. It was a super heroes Top Trumps deck. So where was he?    

Back in a 2004 ‘Basement Tapes’, Matt Fraction told Joe Casey an anecdote, the horror of which has stayed with me.

I knew a kid, he was seven or eight when I met him, and when he’d draw pictures of his favorite cartoon characters, he’d always drop the character’s respective logo bug into the lower right hand corner of his drawings. So his drawings of Batman had a WB shield on it, etc. It was disturbing; Warner Brothers had branded the kid’s imagination.

That kid’s less unusual now. Watching my nephew’s engagement with superheroes then he seems to have been born with the belief that the species divides up into ‘Marvel’ and ‘DC’ and that the nature of the division is something called a ‘universe.’ There is no question that his imagination has been branded, the only question is whether that branding was inflicted over the course of his lived cognitive experience or is some sort of epigenetic inheritance.

The strength and power of those umbrella brands is a big part of what many kids are currently playing with when they get excited about superhero media. There’s a relish to how they negotiate these limits. My own daughter also arrived at a separation of superpowers early in her life, but she did so by dividing them up into “Heroes with Superpets” and “Heroes with no Superpets and consequently no value or interest”, a system which might have fairly accurately divided them into DC and Marvel for her had not Magical Girls got swept up in it.

But anyway, the point is that it would be remarkable nowadays for an eight year old kid invested in superheroes to not have a notion of ‘Marvel Super Heroes’ being a particular object. But it was not so in Gowerton, South Wales, back in Nineteen Eighty-Five. I had no idea! Not until Secret Wars I. Or, to give it its real title for once, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars.      

Here was a story, created to sell action figures, about a space god scooping up loads of superheroes and putting them in a box.

“Here is a box,” says the first page.

“Here are all the superheroes inside,” says the spread across the next two pages.

Here they are. These are the ones. These are the Marvel Super Heroes. Here is their box. Here is their universe.

It was a shock from which I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. In three pages then Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Wasp (my favourite Top Trumps card) went from being unbound imaginauts adrift on a sea of whimsy, allied only by their sense of right, to being components in a fixed structure. It was an act of violence. There and then, in Thomas News on Sterry Road, I felt like I’d been told a terrible secret. I felt like war had been declared.

But, for the moment, let’s put aside the consequent lifelong struggle between me and the idea that stories have limits. Let’s just focus on how I processed Secret Wars. Okay, so all these Super Heroes were components of a story, were they? What was that story? If the Marvel Universe was a thing, then what was it a thing about?

“I’ve been perfectly clear,” said the comic, “All the goodies and baddies have been taken from their homes and put on a big blank world to FIGHT!”

“Then nothing’s happened,” I thought, “That’s their natural state.”

Which it kind of was. Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars is a series that works to smooth away the difference between how the characters functioned in their published narratives and how they functioned in the toybox. A big blank world with a faction of goodies and baddies was what you physically held in your hands if you bought all the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats toys and those franchises’ televised strands constructed their own Battleworlds around that. A big blank world divided into goodies and and baddies was the game you were encouraged to play with Eighties toys. It wasn’t the game I played, Care Bears had tea parties round my Snake Mountain, but it was the game I understood I was supposed to. I understood that a Manichean desert was where Spider-Man and the Hulk were supposed to go.

“Picture all the Marvel Super Heroes, billions of miles from home!” said the comic.

“They are home,” I thought, “They are on a big blank world full of goodies and baddies. They are in the toybox, where such toys belong. Equilibrium has been found. All is at rest. There is no story here.”

“Shit! We’ve got to get out of here because one of us is back on Earth going through a rough pregnancy!” said the three members of the Fantastic Four.

“Oi oi,” I said.

Some of these recollections may not be exact.

But the important thing was that the Fantastic Four were unignorably neither at equilibrium nor in their natural habit. There were three of them! They were incomplete! Everything I understood about Spider-Man was fully present. He’d brought everything with him he needed to be Spider-Man. These three blokes had clearly not brought everything they needed to be the Fantastic Four. They were a concept in motion. They were in a state of becoming. They were a story.

Not only that, but their incompletion was due to one of them being pregnant. My Masters of the Universe figures didn’t do that. My mam did that and it was CONFUSING and WEIRD. Pregnancy was something that happened outside of the toybox’s Manichean desert.    

“Picture all the Marvel Super Heroes, billions of miles from home!” said the comic.

I did, and I couldn’t understand how it would matter much to most of them. The Fantastic Four, though, could only be the Fantastic Four if they escaped. They weren’t a thing you could drop in a world. They were a motion between worlds.  

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, the first text to insist at me that ‘The Marvel Universe’ was an object of inquiry, was a text that I could only parse as a story by supposing it to be a story about the Fantastic Four. All the heroes and villains were there, in their boxes, and who they were was revealed to me; they were the FF’s supporting cast.

Although I’ve not mentioned it yet, all this has been a thought about What If? #114. Because all of this has been to say that my experience of every subsequent Marvel Universe story has followed from eight-year-old-me’s apprehension that the the Marvel Universe was about the Fantastic Four.

That raises the stakes here. What If? #114 purports to be asking “What if the heroes never came back from the Secret Wars?” but it isn’t really.  It’s really asking “What if Secret Wars hadn’t been about the Fantastic Four? What if you’ve been wrong all along? What if they just never mattered that much?”

TWO

This world diverges from your actual Secret Wars a with confrontation between Galactus and the Beyonder in which not only they died, but Reed Richards carked it as well. Gods fought and he was collateral damage.  “We have lost not only a man, but a vision,” reads his gravestone, and that seems to be an interesting insight into where his colleagues’ heads must have been at when they erected it.

All those superheroes left stranded forever on a big blank canvas. The X-Men and the Fantastic Four are all about changing worlds and the Avengers are all about protecting them. What do you get if you just leave them alone for twenty years and ask them to make a world?

Tony Stark would be well into that, if he’d come along, wouldn’t he? The Beyonder never invited him though, so we’re spared whatever well-meaning dystopia he’d have plucked from his ring binders. Xavier’s the only big social planner they’ve got with them (walking around in the Iron Man suit with no explanation of what happened to Rhodey) and his mind seems to be more on what might be happening back on Earth. The story’s called ‘Brave New World’ but it’s not obvious where any of the brave new ideas might be coming from.  

They may be vision-light, but they’re resource-heavy. Battleworld is a vast jigsaw of different landscapes and biomes which appear to be maintaining their differentiation even without the sustaining will of the Beyonder. Anything one might wish to gather or mine is within the reach of this community’s several super-strong, super-fast fliers. Also on side are two people who’ve got the ability to control the climate and a couple of people who’ve got the ability to restructure matter.

They’ve got the time, the space, the materials and the workforce to build anything they choose. So what do they build?

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A bunched up collection of apartment blocks next to a couple of bungalows with overlooked gardens. That’s weird.

Now, in your actual Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars then Battleworld eventually turned out not to be the purest form of the Manichean Desert. Love interests, innocent bystanders and neophyte combatants were all needed, so it was revealed that the chunks from which Battleworld had been assembled included a retro sci-fi alien village of the “we express our love for the universe through bongs and sensual touch” variety and also a suburb of Denver. The heroes speculated that there may have been other populated regions, but we never saw any so maybe the Beyonder thought that an alien village and a suburb of Denver represented the full spectrum of possible civilisations. So it’s possible that the heroes of this comic have built nothing in the twenty years since. Perhaps they’ve all just moved into a six square-mile suburb of Denver and left it at that.

This raises the question of where Denver’s civilians are. The aliens from that village too. Where did they all go? The superheroes and supervillains seem to have integrated to a point; they’re all living in the same settlement, they go to each other’s birthday parties and their kids are flirting. There are limits to this though – other than the Enchantress having had kids by both Thor and Doom they there’s no suggestion of any other intermarriage between Heaven and Hell. The goodies have bred with other goodies to produce little goodies. The baddies have bred with other baddies to produce little baddies. The Denverites and the “What is this thing you humans call monogamy?” aliens are nowhere to be seen. Towards the end of the comic a discussion of the possibility of a return to Earth is held purely in terms of repatriating the action figure people. There’s no talk of moving larger populations or of going anywhere except Earth.  

Whyever we’re missing the two populations that might have staved off this little nation’s eventual descent into the horrors of inbreeding, missing them we are. We’re left with a community so tiny it doesn’t seem to have any apparent form of government. All the authority we see being exercised is parental, except for on one occasion. The Former Villains are escorting their naughty children away in chains, that’s normal, but then this parental authority is supplemented.

“Thanks Owen,” says Steve Rogers, expressing his gratitude to the Molecule Man for some secure child-chaining, “I’ll want to speak with them later.” Where law is needed then people defer to the idea that Rogers is that law. I think they just made him king.

There’s certainly some sort of shared understanding of a social order, as Vinnie, Doom and the Enchantress’ weird kid, is looking to ‘restructure the planet.’ The Doom family is always interesting in this sort of scenario. Just look at what Papa Doom’s been up to. He’s the one person who has built something on this planet – a replica of his Latverian Castle. A castle with a library, pulled from Ultron’s data banks, where he directs his son to the study of history and tells him tales of his youth. Disinterested in ruling this micro-society, Doctor Doom’s not engaged with trying to build a Brave New World, but he has a social agenda, one about the transmission and survival of heritage and culture. As he would also be in Secret Wars IV, Doom is a force for preservation.         

THREE

So, who comprises this New Generation of Heroes and Villains? Nine issues before this, What If? introduced Spider-Girl and the MC2, but I’m afraid there are no Mayday Parkers here. There aren’t even any J2: Son of the Original Juggernauts. Let us give them their due though, and introduce them all. We won’t get another chance unless they’re in ‘Avengers Forever’ or something.      

Crusader

The child of Steve Rogers and… well, now. Her mum looks like Rogue but answers to the name ‘Carol’, so presumably the Danvers personality has overwritten Rogue’s and got together with Steve. A bit dark that, do you think? Or maybe I’m always just a smidge touchy about that sort of thing. Did I mention Monica Rambeau’s dead in this timeline?

Anyway, Crusader. Or Sarah Rogers. She seems nice enough. Cheerful. Supportive. Her character box on the intro page says she has “mild super-strength.”

Like Superman will years later, she wields Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield. Is she the first to have done that? That’s quite cool.

Firefly

The child of Johnny Storm and Janet Van Dyne, an unlikely pairing that can only have occurred as some sort of selective breeding program to deliberately derive a ‘Firefly’ from someone with fire powers and someone with bug powers. Johnny and Jan, indeed! The very idea! What would they even talk about of an evening? Not parenting, that’s for sure. Because they’ve done a lousy job on Firefly.

His introduction is him spitefully bullying Molecule Man’s kid to impress an unnamed girl.

“Ha ha, you’re ugly,” goes Firefly.

“Sob sob,” goes Molecule Man’s kid.

“Oh Firefly, you’re so witty and charming,” goes the unnamed girl. I don’t know what her problem is either.

He gets two other character moments. One of which I’ll come to at the very end and the other of which is just him calling Molecule Man’s kid ugly a second time and then calling his mother ‘cheap.’ What a little shit.

Johnny’s had a rough twenty-five years of it, I think. Ben is missing with no explanation given and Peter, absorbed by the symbiote, is now just a skeleton in some soup. No excuse for this though. Have a word with your kid.

With the initials ‘FF’ on his costume then Firefly is the last surviving symbol of Fantastic Fourness in his generation. An ignominious end.   

Mustang

The child of She-Hulk and Hawkeye. Eh, okay.

From his mother he’s inherited ‘Green’ and from his father he’s inherited ‘Arrows.’ I am genuinely only now noticing what they did there. His character box also says he’s inherited some of his mother’s super-strength but I don’t think we see enough evidence of this to determine if it’s mild or spicy.

He seems to be the official Fun Guy of the group, based on his jovial affect and little beard. But the most remarkable thing about him is his attitude to the Hulk. Twenty years ago the Hulk walked off into the wilderness and entered legend, becoming a fairy tale to this new generation. A myth of a super-strong green man somewhere in the distant beyond. That’s certainly how Mustang views him, as an incredible tale his parents used to tell that may or may not have held some truth. Putting myself in his place, if I was a super-strong green man with a super-strong green mother then, were that mother to tell me that my uncle was a super-strong green man then I’d probably be more, “okay, sure” than “A super-strong green man? What a fanciful yarn!”     

Bravado

The child of Thor and the Enchantress. Lot of issues going on with this kid. Self-worth stuff over not being able to pick up his dad’s hammer. Anger stuff over Doom having killed his mum. All of that.

The fun thing though is that he looks like he’s going to be Kid Thor but then turns out to be better at throwing his mum’s spells around. Look what we’ve found here! A little proto-Billy Kaplan.

Torrent

The child of Storm and Wolverine. Characterised mostly as a short Storm who sometimes growls.

I think the best version of this comic would be one told as her story. These other kids are all people of the toybox. They’re in their natural habitat and their only concerns are with how they relate to elements present within it. Elements like their peers, their parents and their legacies. Torrent’s concerns are all with matters back on Earth. Her mother had a spiritual link to the planet, and Torrent’s got no way of knowing if she has one too. Her legacy is as part the struggle of an oppressed people from which she’s totally disconnected. Everything she needs to make sense of her world is outside of the world she’s in. Equilibrium has been lost. Nothing is at rest. There is story here.

 This comic doesn’t really tell that story, but even as things stand then she does get the most heartbreaking line of the issue. We’ll come to that later.

After we’ve considered the wicked children of the wicked people…

Chokehold

Interesting young lady, this. Daughter of Titania and the Absorbing Man.

We’re introduced to her while she’s wrestling with Mustang, choking him until he says that she’s prettier than Crusader. It’s a pretty awkward bit of flirting. So much so that I wonder if it contextualises Firefly’s pathetic looks-based bullying. Is the implication that the children of this dying community have a very concrete sense of themselves as in competition to pass on their genes? That their teenage dating hijinks have been distorted by an ugly sense of themselves as stock?

Chokehold is the first villain-spawn we see lured by the Son of Doom into doing some actual villaining. He tells her he has a proposition for her and leaves it at that. We don’t know what the proposition is. There’s nothing he’s got. There’s nothing meaningful he wants to achieve. There’s nothing we know she wants other than to be told she’s prettier than Crusader. Maybe it’s just that.    

Moleculon

The Molecule Man’s kid. Very much like the Molecule Man, really. Younger. That’s about the only difference I could see.

Gator

The son of the Lizard. Talks a lot about how he’s like his father but with “cunning” and “smarts.” All he seems to do though is swim about in Doom’s moat. Might be doing something cunning down there, I suppose, but we don’t have enough to go on.

Nevertheless, the least upsetting son of the Lizard I’ve ever read about.

Raze

The son of the Wrecker. Described as a bully. Does 300% less bullying than Firefly.

FOUR

We’ve got a generation all ready to fight and a scenario in which they’ve nothing to fight for. Is that what you get when you leave the toys in the box for twenty-five years and then come back to see what’s grown? The Fantastic Four shocked me as a kid because they only made sense in a social, familial context whereas at eight years old I couldn’t give a fuck that the Wasp had a creepy ex. Crusader, Mustang and their pals are a generation nurtured within the Manichean Desert and who have never known the touch of context. I’m not sure she knows what the crusades were. I’m not sure he knows what a mustang is.  

The comic opens with the site where the Beyonder’s abductees declared a truce. A plaque there is inscribed “Let this mark the spot where both sides laid down their weapons and the great war came to an end.”

Placed perfectly parallel to the plaque is Thor’s hammer, the only laid down weapon visible. We can’t see what’s written on it, but if I remember right then it’s something along the lines of “You can only pick this up if you’re awesome.”

Thor’s hammer is a symbol of worth, one much more judgemental than Swords in Stones, since they only check for legitimacy. As always, you can’t see that hammer lying on the ground without wondering who is going to prove worthy of picking it up, but here its abandonment is the corollary of peace. To pick it up is to make war.  

Lying on the ground the hammer means that war is over. Raised from the ground the hammer means that someone is worthy. There cannot be worth here without war. The tea party at Snake Mountain will be an awkward occasion, for the action figure people cannot be validated without conflict. 

This Hamilton-esque correlation between the wish for a war and the wish to rise up is very much on the mind of one of the villains’ descendants. Vincent, Vinnie or Malefactor is the product of Doom’s libraries and what’s inspired him there is the story of Napoleon. Mal’s decided that similar conquest is his destiny and that he’s going to do some Napoleon-ing. He’ll provide the rumpus that everyone needs by staging a Napoleonic war of conquest, undeterred by the fact that Napoleon conquered much of western Europe and a took a bite out of North Africa while all that is available for Mal to conquer is six-square-miles of Denver occupied by fewer than forty people. War is an essential part of the heroes and villains’ natures, he contends, and its cessation is just explained by the parents having been too old and the children too young until now. Any interbellum is just a generational tide.    

And so begins the Conquest of Nothing. A secret war that culminates in the imagery of all your faves battling Malefactor’s robots on the streets of an abandoned Denver suburb, in front of empty buildings. As a symbol of the absurd futility that menaces the superhero genre from within then that’s up there with Superman Returns. The last stand of our heroes, defending nobody from nothing in particular.

The march to war is even stranger. Malefactor gathers his allies from among the wicked children of wicked people but then invites the virtuous children to virtuous people to get in on it.

“Join me. Get your friends and join me,” he tells Bravado, “Together we can rule the planet.”

Mate! If he’d taken up that offer then you would have just brought together the entire second generation of this settlement. You’re going to rule the planet anyway, all six square inhabited miles! That’s not conquest, that’s consensus! And since Malefactor seems set on the whole aesthetic of conquest, I don’t think the offer’s all that sincere. He then threatens Bravado with war. Bravado declares that they’ll be no war since he and his friends will take up arms to stop one. This is also insincere. Or just really poorly thought through.

In the flames of this epic conflict between the Conquerors of Nothing, fighting for a generational handover that’ll happen anyway, and the Defenders of Nothing, fighting to protect some empty buildings, then a team is forged. A superhero team with nothing to fight or stand for outside the business of being superheroes. Say, what do you call an act like that?

Torrent knows. The growly mini-Storm knows who they are.

“Who gets to say ‘Avengers Assemble’?” eagerly asks a child who could have been an X-Man. If you take the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Avengers and separate them from the external then this is what you get. An Avengers World.     

We know this because that’s the Marvel Universe we have now. This year they’re publishing an event called Secret Empire in which various Marvel characters ally themselves with a fascist takeover of the United States or are revealed to have been secretly fascists all along. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly then Marvel are keen to reassure us that this is “an age-old battle of good versus evil” with “little to do with contemporary political parallels.” How’s that possible? How’s it possible to pretend that a Two-Thousand-and-Seventeen story about a United States co-opted by fascism is an apolitical punch up between goodies and baddies? Only in the big blank battleworld. The Wars over Nothing and Empires over Nobody that exist inside the toybox cannot be allowed to touch those without. Those wars and empires, they’d have it, are secret.

Yet What If #114 knows something that I’m not sure Disney’s Marvel does. It knows that this is unsustainable. Not long after this team of Avengers, this team of Just ‘Cos heroes, forms then they find their way to Earth and straight into the middle of an X-Men story. Sentinels roam the streets! Cities burn! Oppressed groups are hunted and regulated, their right to exist dependant on validation by their persecutors! What If #114 ends with the Mutant Metaphor in full effect and our apolitcal heroes crash-landing into the most undeniably political cornerstone of the Marvel universe. These Avengers have X-Men problems now. Problems with external reference and context. Reconsidering their role and purpose, they do the all-hands-in-the-middle thing, as seen at the climax of Disney’s Descendants and the origin story of the Fantastic Four. Firefly ends the issue by saying he’s going to regret this.

We’ll never know if he did or not. This is the last issue of What If’s second volume and comes with a little editorial note marking that. “Possibilities. That’s what this book is about and that’s how it’ll end” it says and it’s not lying. The children of the Secret Wars are given no further stories but they’re given a possibility denied to children of the Secret Empire, denied to characters in ‘apolitical’ stories about facism. They’re given the possibility that their stories might have worked.

Have Them Fight God: Can We Know if Deadpool Drowns Nuns?

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. They won’t all be interesting to everyone. The comics or the thoughts. Dip in as you like.  

Today it’s…

Deadpool #35

Deadpool_Vol_1_35

… from December 1999. A comic in which Deadpool tells the story of his first encounter with superheroes.

Storytelling by Christopher Priest, Paco Diaz and Andy Smith. Inks by Smith, Holdredge and Pepoy. Colours by Shannon Blanchard. Letters by RS & Comicraft’s Troy Peteri. Edited by Ruben Diaz.

ONE

A mysterious scientist holds Deadpool prisoner in a big tube! The same mysterious scientist also holds Death herself prisoner! In a separate big tube! Deadpool is slowly turning into snot!

What is going on? Who is this mysterious scientist? Who is he working for? What is he trying to achieve? How did he capture Death herself? How funny was snot to this book’s intended audience?

It would be easy for me to learn the answers to nearly all those questions.

All I would have to do is read the next couple of issues in this arc. They would almost certainly clear things up nicely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I was trying to write some sort of helpful guide to continuity or aspiring to speak with any sort of authority then I should probably read those issues. Not going to. I’m not aspiring to authority and I’m not interested in being helpful.  I’m just reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each, and since one of this week’s thoughts is literally just “I’m not very keen on Deadpool” then I won’t be reading any more issues of Deadpool than I have to.  

Here’s the thing though. We’re not considering this comic today out of interest in Deadpool’s tube/Death/snot situation. We’re considering it because, from within that tube, Deadpool tells a story. It’s the story of the first time he ever met a superhero. He tells us that he’d never even seen one before the events he here narrates. This is first contact between Deadpool and the superfolk. This is the day he met Ben Grimm.

That story is both smaller and bigger than the story about the big tubes and the snot. It is smaller because it is all wrapped up in this issue, while the story about the big tubes looks like it maybe goes on for another two. It is bigger because it’s part of the ongoing narrative of how Deadpool fits into the world in which he lives.

If I were to read issues #36 and #37 of this volume of Deadpool then I feel confident that I would arrive at what I might reasonably take as secure knowledge regarding the questions asked above. What’s going on? Who is this mysterious scientist working for and what is he trying to achieve? How did he capture Death herself? I reckon I’d find out. I reckon those comics would be happy to tell me.

But if my question was “Who was the first superhero that Deadpool ever met?” then what would it take for me to arrive at what might reasonably be considered secure knowledge regarding that?

Just this issue, perhaps? After all, this issue presents Deadpool’s narration as broadly reliable (by explicitly correcting it in the places where it is not) and clearly has Deadpool tell us the story of the first time he met a superhero. Maybe just this issue is all we need to feel confident saying that Ben Grimm was the first superhero Deadpool ever met.

Come on, though. This comic came out in Nineteen Ninety-Nine. Would you take the bet that, seventeen years on, it remains an Astonishing True Fact of the Marvel Universe that the first hero Deadpool met was Ben Grimm? I wouldn’t.

The mysterious forces that 1602’s Reed Richards identified as working to endlessly prolong superheroes’ stories prevent us from ever reaching a point where we can stand back, cross our arms and regard their stories in totality. Maybe you’re a bit of a Deadpool expert and can tell me who, in Two Thousand and Sixteen, is currently understood to be the first superhero that Deadpool ever met. Maybe you can even tell me that my suspicions are unfounded and that it remains Ben Grimm. What you can’t tell me is that the matter is settled and that we’ve arrived at concrete and final knowledge. A new revelation, wrinkle or retcon could always be around the corner.

Deadpool_Killustrated_Vol_1_4_Textless copy

Deadpool has met both Moby Dick and Sherlock Holmes, and much fannish and/or theoretical discussion is possible about where the boundaries of those characters’ stories lie. What is a novel? What is a canon? That sort of thing. A sort of thing that’s functionally meaningless when discussing characters involved in massively multi-authored, multi-decade superhero narratives. We know that these characters’ texts have no boundaries, just an endless space into which they’re constantly expanding. These narratives are not reaching for any stable point where what has been asserted as true can be trusted to remain so.  

You’ve probably seen Chris Tolworthy’s fascinating and enviable project ‘The Fantastic Four 1961-1989 Was The Great American Novel.’ If you haven’t, you can probably guess what it’s up to from the title. It’s the Fantastic Four considered as a novel, and that’s a trick it’s able to pull off thanks to the ‘1961-1989’ part. Setting that limit and slamming the door on the Fantastic Four’s endless expansion is what allows that project to treat the work as something novel-shaped. Without that “1961-1989”, or a similar limitation, then the Fantastic Four can only be considered as a big pile of comics.

I’ve had a go at setting a limit for this project, Have Them Fight God. The first issue of Secret Wars IV ends with the destruction of the Marvel Universe. So that seemed like a good place.

obit

That sets limits.

Sure, a (disputed) number of the Fantastic Four survived the end of the Marvel Universe and helped create its replacement, but nevertheless it’s been stated that “The Marvel Universe 1961-2015” was a thing. A thing that ended. A sufficient object of enquiry. We can make confident statements about what was ‘true’ within “The Marvel Universe 1961-2015” without having to worry that a forthcoming development will reveal that Steve Rogers was secretly running Hydra’s MySpace page all along. It becomes a stable truth that whoever the first superhero Deadpool met was whoever he was said to have first met when the music stopped in Secret Wars IV.

The only way for that to be challenged would be for a proposition made on the same narrative level as “The Marvel Universe 1961-2015 was a discrete entity” to come along and assert that it wasn’t. We’re able to treat the fictional construct that existed between those years as something like a novel for as long as we can consider 1961 and 2015 to be something like endpapers.   

This might already be being challenged. During Secret Wars IV it was in Marvel’s interest to put it about that events of unprecedented import were afoot; that the universe created in 1961 was no more and that a new world had replaced it. After Secret Wars IV it was naturally in Marvel’s interest to put it about that it was business as usual, that we should maintain our prior level of investment and continue with our habitual buying of their product. Al Ewing’s post-Secret Wars IV comics have talked about how the universe has been destroyed on seven occasions and is now in its eighth iteration. That’s a proposition made on the same narrative level as “the Marvel Universe 1961-2015 was a discrete entity” that seems to suggest it wasn’t. This death and rebirth of universes malarky happens all the time and it’s no big deal and we shouldn’t worry too much about it and should all carry on as we were.     

It seems even moves to give these fictions stable limits can be briskly destabilized. Have Them Fight God will still just be considering the Fantastic Four 1961-2016 but has no aspirations to consider it as a novel. The Fantastic Four 1961-2016 Was A Big Pile Of Comics.

TWO

Deadpool tells a story. It starts with him about to drown a nun and ends with him refusing to allow a child to die. It is very much about him working out his values.

“It suddenly mattered to me […],” he recollects from inside his big tube. “Y’know… where the line was.”

He could probably get a head start on finding that line by thinking about what differentiates the two atrocities. Throwing a tied-up nun into the East River is extravagantly appalling. Being complicit in the death of a child is banal. It reads right for Deadpool to be capable of the first evil but not the second because there is a transgressive pleasure to be had in breaking taboos around religion and respect. The statement “Deadpool drowned a nun” might typically be expected to elicit a gasp and a nervous giggle. The statement “Deadpool killed a child” might typically be expected to provoke revulsion. It’s not how the two actions work morally that set them apart, but how they work textually. He is capable of one because it’s the right sort of horrific and incapable of the other because it’s the wrong sort of horrific.

So there he is on the Brooklyn Bridge, puzzling this all out. Murdering the nun is a “routine snatch and croak” for him, and he’s treating his bound and gagged victim to a monologue on how he longs for something more. He still intends to kill her, and it appears he eventually does so after it’s revealed that she has a moustache, but he is frightfully bored by the whole carry-on.

Whatever it is he’s looking for, whatever line suddenly matters to him, it will have to be found with reference to the genre in which he operates as a character. What is and isn’t okay for him to do is determined by how it reads rather than by a consistent and externally applicable moral philosophy. And how his actions are read is inextricable from the sort of fictional universe in which he performs them. It is a superhero universe.   

So what Deadpool needs to do, before he can achieve any sense of what sort of person he is, is work out what he is in relation to superheroes. Specifically, what he is in relation to the Fantastic Four. This issue is about Deadpool being confronted with his being a superhero-shaped non-superhero in a world that exists to tell superhero stories. This issue is him having a think about how he fits.

The obvious answer, given his nun-drowning starting point, is that he fits as a villain. As soon as he’s engaged with the world of the superfolk, then it’s the Manichean quality of the genre that strikes him..

“I was really impressed by the whole idea. Y’know…’Heroes’ and ‘Villains.’ As though life actually was that simple. I’d never really thought of myself as a villain — […] But, suddenly, something was different. Like all of a sudden it mattered how I defined myself.”

In both Two Thousand and Ten and in Nineteen Ninety Eight, the Top Trumps card game had a ‘Marvel Super Villains’ deck available alongside their pack of Marvel Super Heroes cards.

trumps

You know who is in which deck.

You know that Magneto is depicted right there next to the Red Skull, their ideological and moral differences erased by the fact that they’re both officially Villains.  No matter how much characterization and nuance might be applied to these imaginary people in the worlds where they exist as stories, the gravity of the world in which they are sold as spaghetti shapes will eventually drag them back to their determined category.

damn

Loki’s final action at the end of Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery is to damn the inhabitants of world outside his story. Loki knows that whatever he does within the fiction, however he might change and grow, Loki will still always end up in the Top Trumps Villains pack. The god of stories can’t trump the god of spaghetti. While there are characters who’ve been able to definitively switch category, they’re those on whom the gravity of SpagettiWorld only ever pulled lightly. Emma Frost gets to stay a hero, but Doctor Octopus will not. It matters too much outside the fiction that he’s a Marvel Super Villain. Similarly, Steve Rogers won’t get to stay a Nazi. He’s a Marvel Super Hero.  

Within the fiction of the Marvel Universe, then ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are social constructs. People identify as superheroes because ‘superhero’ is a idea that exists in that world because the Fantastic Four had it. But ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are also ontological categories because this is a fiction that is secondary to the business of selling duvet covers and socks and will contort itself to fit the process by which that is happening.

Deadpool is absolutely right in his intuition that something has suddenly changed for him. Interacting with the Marvel Universe, rather than just living an off-panel backstory, exposes him to the physics that will drag him to one Top Trumps deck or another. So we should probably be absolutely clear on the different ways in which a Marvel character can be considered a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain.’ There are three.  

  • Someone might be the hero of the story. Heroic fiction traditionally works by asserting values and presenting a character who exemplifies them. The things that the cartoon Steven Universe thinks are good are the things that the character Steven Universe represents. Steven Universe is the hero of his story.
  • Someone might be a hero in the story. ‘Hero’ exists as a job description in superhero universes and someone can quite easily hold down that job without being anything like a hero of their story. Extreme examples might be characters like the superheroes from The Boys who, as complete monsters, fail to align with the values presented as good by their text. They are the villains of their story but identifiably occupy the role of superhero within it. Less dramatic, but more important, examples, would be characters conscientiously doing superhero-ing but with little narrative weight. Look! There’s the Bulleteer and Plastic Man buzzing around towards the back of crowd scenes in Infinite Crisis! Are they heroes in Infinite Crisis? ‘Course they are. They’re heroes and they’re in Infinite Crisis. Are they the heroes of Infinite Crisis? Don’t be twp. They just buzz around at the back of crowd scenes.
  • Someone might be a hero regardless of story. The Punisher is not understood as a hero within the Marvel universe and none of this century’s notable runs on the character have treated him as exemplary of values they were purporting to be good. Ennis, Aaron and Remender were all quite agreed that what their damned and exhausted character exemplified and what their stories were working to exemplify were two different things. The Punisher is neither a hero within his stories or the hero of his recent stories. He’s still going in the Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps deck though. Because he’s categorically a Marvel Super Hero in a sense that’s divorced from narrative. We’re all spaghetti in the end.   

All those go for “villain” too. So what looks simple to Deadpool, a clear hero/villain binary, are actually three different axes defining a space in which there’s a lot going on.

It’s easy to be misled though, when you’ve been invited to join the Frightful Four. Deadpool tries on two supervillainous roles in this story, experiencing a pure expression of the ‘villain as job description’ concept by getting a gig as a Hobgoblin stand-in and then teaming up with the Frightfuls.   Everything about the Frightful Four suggests a world of clear divisions. There exist heroes called the Fantastic Four, so there exist villains called the Frightful Four in response.  

The Wizard, their leader, almost seems perfectly designed to unify the ideas of ‘villain of the story’ and ‘villain in the story.’ Keep an eye on this guy. Originally a Human Torch baddie from Nineteen Sixty-Two, the Wizard endured to oppose the Fantastic Four in each of their book’s three final runs before its cancellation. There he is in the Hickman run. There he is in the Fraction run. There he is in the Robinson run. Being a Bad Man in each.

But what’s Bad about him exactly, what sort of wrongness he represents, is different every time. In the Hickman run the Wizard is wicked because he values ideas over people. In the Fraction run he is wicked because he subscribes to oppressive and exclusionary notions of family, and in the Robinson run he’s a generic bogeyman there to restore all the cliches that the previous runs had been subverting. There’s no need for the Wizard to ever have any consistent desires or ideology. He just exists to be a Bad Man. What ever kind of Bad Man the story needs.

We might have a bit of fun trying to assemble a consistent narrative of What Wittman Wants, but really he’s a villain because he’s a villain because he’s a villain. What he wants is the opposite of what the story thinks is good. If Jonathan Hickman is telling a story that contends that people are more important than ideas, then the Wizard’s all about Not That. If Matt Fraction is telling a story that contends that families don’t have to conform to oppressive norms then the Wizard thinks Oh Yes They Do. He is always at hand to help hide the gaps between being a villain in the story, of the story and regardless of the story by being exactly whatever kind of dick we are being asked to understand a dick to be.

Bentley ‘the Wizard’ Wittman is a remarkable (non)character though. Most people operating within the Fantastic/Frightful dichotomy are more freely mobile. The Frightfuls have barely had a member who wasn’t an amnesiac goodie, a mole, an alternate version of a hero, someone acting against their will, or someone who was later redeemed in some way. To be a member of the Frightful Four is to be a villain in the story, but there’s nothing about it that guarantees you the status of a villain of the story. Unless you’re the Wizard.

Trying to save Franklin’s life, Deadpool expresses what he’s come to understand about how heroism and villainy work. “This is just a gag, kid,” he says.  

THREE

I’m not very keen on Deadpool.

THREE

(cont.)

I’m not very keen on Deadpool.

Some of that might just be bad timing.

Halfway through Nineteen Ninety-Two, my childhood enthusiasm for Marvel comics wound down and off I drifted to get my teenage kicks from Dark Horse and VERTIGO. I didn’t drift back until Two Thousand and One.

So when I left, Deadpool was an entirely undeveloped ‘Spider-Man but a mercenary’ figure who I took to be of equal value and interest to characters like Gideon and Kane that his creators were also throwing at the wall back then.

And when I came back, Deadpool was there… and yet he wasn’t. In the early Two Thousands, the character existed in his own spaces and his own books, impinging on the consciousnesses of none but those inclined to seek him out. I was not among that number. Nothing of what I recalled about the character drew me towards him and every single person on the internet with ‘Deadpool’ in their screen name seemed like a total wanker..

See what’s happened there! By that point I had sat out the entire decade in which Joe Kelly created the version of the character that people actually like and I had failed to notice that the Gail Simone run was happening. Everything I’d been oblivious to had been everything with the potential to endear him to me. Wade Wilson, you and I were never meant to be.  

Then the Great Deadpool Explosion of the late 00’s happened. Not in response to the character’s appearance in Wolverine Origins, but in response to the anticipation of the character’s appearance in Wolverine Origins. A wave of enthusiasm built up when it was announced that the kid was gonna be in pictures, and then rolled right on over the disappointment of the film. Nobody was even still talking about Wolverine Origins by May of Two Thousand and Ten, a month in which there were nine comics published with Deadpool’s name in the title and a generous handful of others in which he featured. He’d become a significant part of Marvel’s publishing program. He’d become unignorable.

Sure, it was possible to ignore whatever was actually happening in books like Deadpool, Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool Team Up, Prelude to Deadpool Corps, Wolverine and Deadpool and the others, but it was impossible to ignore their ubiquity. It was equally impossible to ignore the character’s congruence with the values of a community that had adopted him. 4Chan’s /b/ forum was sadly still relevant at the time and its basic moral mechanism (“nihilism ∴ libertarianism expressed as cruelty”) was identical to the basic mechanism of a Deadpool joke. That culture understood him as theirs, and the particular way that the comics embraced meme culture showed that they agreed. The Deadpool of Two Thousand and Ten was 4chan as a superhero and everyone involved knew it.

So yeah, bad timing. The point at which I first had to think about Deadpool was not a point at which it was possible to like him.

 THREE

(cont)

I’m not very keen on Deadpool.

If you go to many British provincial alternative comedy nights then you’ll start to notice the same thing happening at about two out of every three. A male performer will romantically or sexually proposition a male member of the audience. A ha ha a ha hah ha. Oh, such japes!

There’s a lot going on with that, and most of it relates to discomfort and threat. The first thing to note is that it’s often done to abrogate threat. The male comedian wants to do a thing that requires propositioning a member of the audience and knows that it looks a particular sort of creepy if he starts cracking onto a woman from the stage, so instead he goes for a bloke. Fair enough.

Having started down this path to avoid discomfort and threat, the comedian then proceeds to re-introduce and exploit it. His target will be ideally be drinking lager and will, at some point in his life, have been described as a ‘geezer.’ The audience member who reads closest to a working class, blokish, heterosexual man will be selected to receive the comedian’s affections.

THE TENSION!

We know that we’re in the fundamentally liberal, middle-class setting of a twenty-first century British provincial alternative comedy night. But look what’s happening! A man we feel we cannot count on not to be homophobic is being wooed by another man! How does he feel? What will he say? We are invited to enjoy the hilarity of this danger and to enjoy the assumed discomfort of the target. We are to imagine him dying for our sins.

Look at the mechanics of that. We (and I’m using that pronoun because this is a joke that only works through absolute complicity) are creating a situation in which the very idea of male/male attraction becomes a joke by using the acceptability of male/male attraction. That homosexual desire is Officially Tolerated in that space is used to make a performance of homosexual desire into something humorous and uncomfortable. That’s some Foucauldian shit.

There are other jokes that work like that.

Deadpool is one of them.

This is a character who frequently expresses same sex desire but only ever under circumstances where it constitutes a joke about the incongruity of his behaviour or the discomfort of the object of his affections. Deadpool is allowed to fancy blokes to let us laugh at the idea of blokes fancying blokes. He might very well be Officially, Canonically Pansexual but functionally he is of no value whatsoever as queer representation. He works like the straight male comedian cracking on to the guy in the audience. He is a joke at our expense.     

FOUR

Two, or maybe four, thoughts ago, I took it for granted that even independent of considerations of narrative function, morality and branding Deadpool is a superhero-shaped concept. That feels intuitively true, but how does it work? What makes a thing like Deadpool and a thing like the Fantastic Four the same sort of thing? There are a lot of boring and obvious ways we might answer that question, but this issue goes

THREE

(No. No. No. Wait. THERE’S ANOTHER THING)

I’m not very keen on Deadpool. Can’t stress that enough.

Probably it’s just nerdy fan partisanship. A lot of the business of being emotionally invested in superheroes involves feeling protective of your faves. How vulnerable our little friends are! How assailed on all sides by the cruel words of the ignorant and the vicious whims of their writers! There’s a level of investment, differently expressed in different fan cultures, that leads us to see these characters as under our protection from the many threats they face.

One of those threats is the possibility of some bastard coming along and stealing what makes them special.

On tumblr I once posted a panel from Paul Tobin’s Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man. A panel of Spidey bamboozling a foe with amusingly inappropriate quips.  Loads of notes, it got. Quite right too.  Paul Tobin’s Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man is the best. But then one of the notes…ONE OF THE NOTES…was someone saying…AND I QUOTE… “Since when did Spider-Man become Deadpool?” That wasn’t easy to type. My hands shake even now. There’s Spider-Man, there he is, bamboozling a foe with amusingly inappropriate quips. Like a spider can. And there’s someone, there they are, looking at that, LOOKING AT THAT, and thinking “Since when did Spider-Man become Deadpool?” Flames. Flames on the side of my face.

Not that Spider-Man’s really someone I feel protective about. He’ll be fine.

She-Hulk, on the other hand. Actual Best Superhero She-Hulk. Actual Official Fourth Wall Breaker of the Marvel Universe She-Hulk. I feel very protective and partisan regarding She-Hulk. Deadpool can empty his pouches onto the table and give her back her schtick RIGHT NOW, thankyouverymuch.  

FOUR

Two, or maybe six, thoughts ago, I took it for granted that, even independent of considerations of narrative function, morality and branding, Deadpool is a superhero-shaped concept. That feels intuitively true, but how does it work? What makes a thing like Deadpool and a thing like the Fantastic Four the same sort of thing? There are a lot of boring and obvious ways we might answer that question, but this issue goes for something surprisingly revealing.

When Deadpool first catches sight of Ben, he immediately starts thinking about what unites and divides them. “I wanted to ask the guy for his autograph,” he says. “Seems silly now. I mean — Here was a guy who’d found himself . A man who’d been disfigured and shunned by the public — but he’d somehow come to terms with things. I wanted to ask him how he did it. Buy the guy a brewskie. Instead I shot him.”

What appears immediately important there are their shared origins and their differing levels of success in responding to them. Ben’s disfigurement set him on the path to becoming the idol o’ millions and Wade’s disfigurement set him on the path to routine snatch and croaks. What’s really important though is that Ben is wearing bunny ears.

Nobody ever talked about Deadpool for long without talking about Looney Tunes, the vicious twentieth century cartoon series about reality-bending sadists taking lingering delight in the torture of their victims. Road Runner, Tweety Pie, Speedy Gonzales and Bugs Bunny, the most malicious incarnation of the folkloric rabbit trickster, twisted physics and causality into amusing shapes to delight us with the inventive ways that they could hurt people. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man story ‘The Coyote Gospel’ famously made the association between their theatre of cruelty and the superhero genre’s, but it’s apparent to everyone acquainted with Deadpool. Obviously this guy is something like Bugs Bunny.

But it’s Ben wearing the ears.

ears

“I’m just treading water,” says Deadpool, reflecting on his life to the nun he’s about to drown, “Kinda like you’re about to do.” It’s a moment of comic cruelty. He’s inviting his distressed captive to reflect on the fact that not only is he about to kill her, but that she’ll die in a desperate and futile panic. It’s a moment of casual sadism. The issue ends with another joke promising violence; Having escaped from his big tube, Deadpool seizes the scientist by the throat and announces that he has another tale to tell – “The Egghead Who Got Himself Whacked!”

A lot of things happen between those two jokes. Deadpool joins the Frightful Four, accepting a role as villain. Deadpool encounters Ben, prompting him to consider his relationship to heroes. Deadpool attempts to save Franklin’s life from a lift shaft into which he’s fallen.

That last action is presented as a moment of understanding. By trying to save Franklin’s life then Deadpool has relegated adherence to villainy to just being a gag and gained a sense of where ‘the line’ is for him. Trying to save Franklin from the lift shaft is where Deadpool comes to understand what superheroes have to do with him.

Then it’s pulled back.

Deadpool has understood nothing.

Franklin is not in the lift shaft.

Ben it wearing the ears.

gun

Franlkin’s been watching Deadpool from the top of the shaft. Watching him flounder desperately in the rubble like a drowning nun. And when the moment is right, when the moment is most Looney Tunes, Franklin produces a huge gun and shoots him. Ben then appears and does his catchphrase. It’s a promise of violence. It’s an expression of delight. It’s a man taking pleasure in doing harm. It’s clobbering time.

I’ve seen some pretty creepy images of Franklin Richards in my time, but not many compare to the panel of him gleefully peering down the lift shaft, eyes wide in rapture, as Ben repeatedly pounds on his subdued foe.

sadism

Deadpool, this comic has it, belongs with the superheroes because the pleasures he offers are inextricable from sadism.  

Have Them Fight God: Magneto Without A Cause

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.

Or at least, I should be, but here on Graphic Policy an unfortunate counting error has caused the project to start with Tom DeFalco’s Fantastic Five miniseries from 1999. I feel such a silly goose. Too late to go back and fix it now, I suppose. The only way out is through.  

That series was part of the ‘MC2‘, an alternate universe set sixteen years into Marvel’s future, and so before we can even get to it, we’re looking at every prior appearance of the Fantastic Five in that universe. Thus far we’ve considered What If? #105, Spider-Girl #3 and A-Next #5.

Today it’s…

J2: The Son of the Original Juggernaut #6

J26 jpg

…from March 1999. Another comic in which the FF only appear on a screen in the background for one panel. It’s all important context, though. A new Age of Heroes has dawned and, in this issue, it finds its first critic.

ONE

Franklin Richards, a mutant, is the most popular boy in the world. He’s the non-threatening heartthrob of a generation. Usually at Marvel there’s an interesting tension to that sort of thing.

Avengers #400, to pick one of a million examples, has a crowd wild with enthusiasm for the World’s Mightiest Heroes. They’re cheering and chanting about the virtues of the Avengers, and two particular virtues they’ve identified are that they’re not like those creepy mutant teams and that “they’re our kinda people.”

The Scarlet Witch, both a mutant and an Avenger, begins to express discomfort with receiving praise on those terms. The Vision shushes her. “It hardly matters, Wanda” he says, and helpfully goes on to explain that humanity comes from the soul. “We’re all one race; The human race” is a typically Avengersy stance.

That the crowds cheer for superheroes but persecute mutants is something that a lot of readers find awkward about the Marvel Universe, but it seems to me to be one of the very few things about “the mutant metaphor” that totally works as a metaphor. This is a thing that happens. Our culture habitually selects a few individuals from any group we’re oppressing, raises them to celebrity status, and declares them to be National Treasures. The process offers us the emotional reward of not feeling like we’re oppressing the group (because, look… we love that National Treasure) while also bolstering the logic by which we oppress the group (we love that National Treasure because they are exceptional). It’s an old and sneaky trick, and some people get very cross when the likes of Beyonce stop listening to the likes of the Vision and find ways to disrupt it.

Franklin Richards doesn’t have to bother though. In the MC2 universe that he has inherited then the persecution of the fictional minority to which he belongs seems to have stopped. We know this came about through the “efforts and sacrifices” of the X-Men but we’re otherwise light on details. Regardless, halfway through the MC2’s first year as an imprint then this universe has been established as one where all that nasty business has been sorted out.

That might change. This book’s contemporary, Mutant X, presented a different alternate universe where anti-mutant prejudice was over, only to eventually realise that it didn’t know how to tell mutant stories without it. Mutant X swiftly retconned itself to say that, in fact, anti-mutant prejudice was rife, and that our protagonist just hadn’t noticed it because he was busy. The MC2 might end up doing the same somewhere along the line. I don’t know. I just know that if it does, it won’t be as believable as with Mutant X because the MC2’s protagonist isn’t Alex Summers.

Until that day comes, Jubilee’s X-People seem to be keeping themselves busy by fighting crime. We know from dialogue in J2 #4 that the X-People are not continuous with the X-Men. They are not what the X-Men have evolved into. The X-Men have not re-branded. The X-Men have disbanded. And then Jubilee has formed the X-People. To what ends, exactly, is unclear. We know from J2 #2 that they’re responsible for foiling the get-rich-quick schemes of Enthralla, the Niece of the Original Mastermind, and in this issue they’re listed as part of a category of reactive crimefighters. Based on everything we’ve seen, they have no distinctive mission beyond ‘superhero.’

If there’s no distinct role in the MC2 universe for the X-Men, can there be one for a Magneto figure? Magneta, All-New Mistress of Magnetism, certainly hopes so. Otherwise she’s kind of redundant. She really doesn’t want that. Magneta’s the antagonist on this issue and has “dreams of power and glory” that are dependant on her being the Magneto of her generation.

J2, the Son of the Original Juggernaut, questions her on this. He’s fairly unconvinced that his generation needs a Magneto and the strength of his feelings tells us a lot about how the last generation’s Magneto has been remembered.  

“Why pattern yourself after one of the greatest super-villains of all time?” asks the kid dressed as the supervillain who, in 1991, destroyed the World Trade Centre and stood cackling delightedly amidst the carnage. Magneta makes a half-hearted effort at suggesting he might be coming from a somewhat compromised position, but the scene bustles us along past it. The weight of the story is behind the guy dressed as the Juggernaut being the voice of reason when he tells off the woman dressed as Magneto for taking on the identity of “as mass murderer.” Public acceptance of mutants clearly hasn’t come with any reevaluation of Magneto’s radicalism. If anything, this suggests that whoever wrote the history books hardened the line. In J2’s world, Magneto is remembered simply as a monster.

Magneta thinks differently. Her stance is that he was “a victim of poor press management.” She might be onto something there. The one time we’ve seen Magneto make use of a PR specialist, in Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run, then she turned out to be Mister Sinister in disguise. That’s not ideal. So far, the facts bear Magneta out.

“Many of his ideas and ideals are quite admirable when stripped of his usual arrogant rhetoric” she goes on to say. Again, uncontroversial. Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men sell a very amusing t-shirt to that effect. But then she runs into trouble.

Magneta is arguing for herself as a new Magneto and has identified that Magneto’s ideas have something to offer. Okay, but what do they have to offer in a world where mutants aren’t being oppressed? Depending on how much you want to engage with, and how you want to parse, the mutant metaphor then that’s a question that’s certainly eminently answerable in its terms. But that’s not where Magneta goes with it.      

Up on a screen she displays pictures of all the MC2 heroes we have met so far. They all make the same mistake, she tells us. And that mistake is that “they always allow the criminal to make the first move, and only respond after some outrage has been committed. Her plan is to form “a super-team of like-minded individuals — a Brotherhood of Proactive Heroes — who will strike at anyone we regard as a threat!”

This is both remarkable and unremarkable. Contrasting the traditional values of superheroes with the values of the more gung ho types that crashed through your walls in the early nineties Image boom was, by Nineteen Ninety-Nine, a conversation that was well under way, and Nineteen Ninety-Six’s Kingdom Come had already established that alternate futures like the MC2 were the ideal place to stage it. This conversation was under way, but it was far from over; a couple of months before this comic was published then Stormwatch had been destroyed by Aliens, and a couple of months after this comic was published they would return as the Authority. More than one nearby universe would get precisely the Brotherhood of Proactive Heroes that Magneta called for.

The remarkable bit is the idea that this might be Magneto’s legacy. Something that is nothing to do with identity or resistance but just tips on how to catch criminals. That the notions of his that have value are those that are applicable to the business of being a costumed crimefighter. Both the person arguing for and the person arguing against Magneto have no concept of there being any political context for his actions. It’s strikingly absent from either of their considerations. 

The world in which Franklin has entered adulthood is one where being a mutant has been depoliticised, and already we can see how that’s distorted its cultural memory.

TWO

Magneta has a context in which she sees herself. She is, she announces, “the most powerful of the new generation of heroes!” The MC2 characters are developing a sense of themselves as a group. They know that something’s changed. They know that their synchronous emergence is a thing.

She defines that group by displaying them all on her wall o’ monitors.

wall o monitors

There they all are. The Avengers. The X-People. The Fantastic Five. Darkdevil. Whatever the Doctor Strange analogue was called. Spider-Girl. And seeing them all there together like that really brings home what DeFalco’s done, the extent to which this new generation is a recapitulation of the Silver Age. Seeing them all assembled together for the first time truly explicates what the MC2 is. It can sneak past you when you’re just seeing successive introductions of new versions of old concepts, but when you put them together like that then the big picture is clear.

The MC2 is a new start for the Marvel universe because it’s a re-enactment of the start of the Marvel universe. It’s not just a new generation. It’s specifically a new Sixties.

Last week we talked about exactly this happening in 1602. How, in Gaiman’s story then the introduction of Captain America to Ye Olden Days caused Ye Olden Days to contort themselves into the shape of Marvel’s Silver Age. To extrude analogues of its characters.

Since this is a Fantastic Four project then we might be a little grumpy at the notion of Captain America being the trigger for a Silver Age, but I’m afraid that’s what it says. I checked.

What about in the MC2 though? The fiction’s pretend material history offers no explanations within its bounds for why the Silver Age is repeating itself, so we can only assume that a process similar to 1602’s narrative causality is at work. One retro-snowball has caused this retro avalanche, but which?

Looking at the sequence of these characters emergences sends us cascading backwards. In Spider-Girl’s first story we learn that her superheroic debut is pre-existed by the X-People, the Fantastic Five and the new Avengers. Later events will make it clear that Darkdevil was also on the scene before her. A-Next establishes that the X-People beat the new Avengers to formation, and that that Doctor Strange analogue has been around for a while too.

The Fantastic Five are not a viable trigger for the start of this new Age, since they never went away, but perhaps whatever mysterious catastrophe they have undergone is. Something as yet undiscussed has happened to the team to put Sue out of the picture, put Reed in a cute little robot body, and put metal bits on Ben. Perhaps that mysterious disaster constituted the end of the age they began and prompted the commencement of this one.  

Failing that, then the internal chronology seems to leave the Doctor Strange analogue as the first of the new heroes. That might be interesting, given the antagonistic relationship A-Next has shown him to have with his predecessor. The actual Doctor Strange got fired from the Sorcerer Supreme gig! I sort of love that. If we had more to go on, it would be a lot of fun to consider the two magicians as representatives of two different magical epochs and to account for the two Silver Ages in terms of what they represent. We might keep an eye on that.         

Based on what we have got now though, I think our best bet is to take another close look at What If? #105. No active superheroes are mentioned, shown, or otherwise evidenced anywhere in the comic until May learns of her legacy. As soon as she has…SUPERHEROES EVERYWHERE! It seems most likely that the MC2’s reality has warped around Spider-Girl in the same way 1602’s warped around Rogers.  

THREE

Or it could just be dynasty.

Magneta has got Magneto’s powers, costume, and hair but no apparent personal connection to the chap himself. She’s the new Magneto because she’s mysteriously acquired sufficiently attributes of Magneto-ness and adopted ‘Magneta’ as what she calls her “nom de costume.” Magneta is unusual. Most of the MC2’s analogues have some personal connection to their predecessor.

The Fantastic Four is a family saga, but rarely a dynastic one.

Certainly there have been attempts to interest us in other generations. Sometimes ancestors, sometimes descendants, sometimes ancestors who have time-travelled to the future and sometimes descendants who have time-travelled to the past. It doesn’t matter so long as they’re all called ‘Nathaniel.’ But for all that, the focus is always on Reed and Sue’s generation.

The utterly wonderful Fantastic Four 100th Anniversary Special illustrates the point well. Purporting to be an artefact from forty-seven years ahead of its publication, its recap page gets up up to speed with who the FF will be by then…   

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Fantasic Four: 100th Anniversary Special #1

We don’t get to spend much time with these kids. We get a fabulous story about Sue and Valeria that I wouldn’t trade for anything, but… damn, I kind of want to know if Vicky and Kirby are gonna kiss again.

But Fantastic Four will never be about Vicky and Kirby. It’s only towards the very end of Fantastic Four, in the Millar and Hickman runs, that Franklin and Valeria finally became viable protagonists.

Here and now, in the MC2, the Fantastic Five stand as part of this “New Generation of Heroes.” Four out of the five of them are from the previous generation.

Elsewhere, there has been a succession and it has mostly been a dynastic one. The new team of Avengers consists of Thunderstrike’s son as Thunderstike, Scott Lang’s daughter as a bug-themed hero, the Juggernaut’s son as J2, and a robot that Tony Stark built (I don’t know if robots that Tony builds count as his children, but I bet that’s explored somewhere). The Spider-Girl comic’s tagline is “the daughter of the true Spider-Man!” which even sounds like a genealogical claim being asserted to oust some pretender from the throne.

A-Next’s ‘Kooky Quartet’ characters inherit their roles by more circuitous routes. The American Dream is the niece of Sharon Carter, who is the niece of Peggy Carter. Association with the person of Captain America is obviously passed along the line of nieces. The Crimson Curse, the Scarlet Witch figure, isn’t the daughter of the Scarlet Witch, but is the daughter of Agatha Harkness, her mentor. Even where the relationship between these characters and their predecessors isn’t quite one of linear descent, it’s still all in the family.

Also, the new Avengers’ reserve member, Coal Tiger, is the son of the Black Panther. We might expect them to act like a royal family, I suppose, since they are one. What’s everyone else’s excuse?

The mainstream Marvel and DC universes have long had to negotiate the fact that they have two broad generations of heroes in their stories, the Golden Age and Silver Age characters. Marvel cheerfully started integrating Nineteen-Forties characters into their universe from Fantastic Four #4 on, while DC have gone back and forth on whether or not their Golden Age and Silver Age characters exist in the same reality or if old people are from another universe. As I write, another swing of that pendulum is scheduled for the end of this month.

On the occasions when the DC universe does house both its ‘forties and ‘sixties casts then there’s a further tension. How is the succession to work? How bound are these roles to the bloodlines of their originators? That’s a massively complex question over there. James Robinson’s Starman gets well over eighty issues worth of drama out of interrogating the intersection of the Knight family and the Starman identity.

star1

Starman #One Million

Sometimes you’re Black Canary because your mother was. Sometimes you’re Wonder Woman because your daughter was. Sometimes you’re Wonder Woman because your daughter was but then you then went back in time to be Wonder Woman before her. The late nineties and early two-thousands were a wild time for this sort of thing at DC. A reader could readily observe the push and pull between people who thought it’d be cool if Hourman was a colony of intelligent machines apprenticed to a New God and people who thought it would be more cool if Hourman was some generic bloke called Rick, because Rick was the son of the true Hourman.

It is a complex question at DC because it is one with huge implications.

Generation One have titles and powers. The two are associated.

Generation Two have titles and powers, again associated.

How that association of powers and titles is transmitted from one to the other is a big deal. Making those associations and managing their transmission is literally how Rome gets a line of Emperors without formally having Emperors. That’s what defines what a Roman Emperor is and this potentially tells us a lot about what a ‘superhero’ is too. It makes a huge difference to what has been created, within the fiction, when one creates a superhero identity if it’s established as the natural norm for you to have just instituted a dynastic inheritance. It colours any response to the question of how superheroes relate to their power if one of the things they’re expected to do with it is pass it on to their kids.  

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Starman #One Million

This isn’t as inextricable a concern for Marvel as it is for DC. Marvel might tie themselves up in a muddle of retcons as to what exactly the Vision has to do with the Golden Age Human Torch, but it never has to worry about whether or not he’s the son of Marvex the Super-Robot. Whatever relationships may be established between Marvel’s ‘forties and ‘sixties characters, there’s rarely a sense that they share identities to an extant that demands an explanation.

When DC’s ‘forties characters became superheroes, did they found dynasties? Um, it’s complicated. On the days when they exist, then some certainly did.

When Marvel’s ‘forties characters became superheroes, did they found dynasties? No, they categorically did not.

Which makes it interesting when Marvel imagines futures for itself. When it imagines a Generation Three. Because then it has to ask if its ‘sixties characters founded dynasties. If they did what their predecessors did not and made the imperial move when they associated titles with powers.

The MC2’s answer is a definite yes.

They’re not the only ones at it. One of the back-up stories in this issue is an adventure for Wild Thing, the daughter of the original Wolverine.      

FOUR

Here are the credits for this issue –

givethedonkey

“This line was always aimed at a mass market beyond the comic book stores,” Tom DeFalco told the comicboards forum in 2004. It was aimed at “the K-Marts and Targets of the world.”

As we saw when we looked at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, this is what Marvel does in the late nineties. When it reaches outside the direct market, it presents itself as a retro brand. A pastiche of how Stan Lee books were presented in the Nineteen Sixties is what theme park visitors and K-Mart shoppers are thought to be looking for. It’s not clear if they’re expected to recognise the specific reference points for these hokey bits of bullpen buffoonery, but they’re expected to recognise this material as ‘old timey.’

Marvel were publishing two alternate futures in Nineteen Ninety-nine. The project aimed at the direct market, Earth X, traded off the solemnity of Alex Ross pseudo-realism. Readers in the loop were to be sold an idea that ‘Marvel Comics’ are something terribly, terribly serious with the authentic air of adulthood that can only come from all the characters looking like random middle-aged blokes. Meanwhile, the product aimed at the people outside the circle sold an idea of ‘Marvel Comics’ as a happy relic of simpler times. Both were extreme strategies.

The strategy for how the MC2 books were to be sold was a nifty one. Three titles, A-Next, J2 and Spider-Girl, would run in the direct market for a year. Then, when their time was up, they’d be replaced with three new titles on on the comic shop shelves. The twelve issues of each launch title that existed would then be bagged up and sold in the mainstream outlets in packs of four, six or twelve. The process would then repeat, with the second wave of titles enjoying their one year of life before making their way in turn to k-mart’s bundles.  

That’s not how it turned out though. A-Next and J2 made it to their allotted twelve issues according to plan, but Spider-Girl made no sense to cancel. So only two new books were introduced in the second wave, Wild Thing and Fantastic Five, and neither made it past their fifth issue. The K-Mart and Target deals had fallen through, and we were spared the strangeness of a continuation of DeFalco’s Hyperstorm saga being presented as an ideal way in to comics.  

I wonder how study those retailer deals were looking when this issue was written, as there’s a paranoid note to many of the frequent metafictional lines of dialogue. “I will be surprised if they survive a full year” says Magneta of the A-Next Avengers, obviously aware that that’s the specific finish line they’re racing to. She’s not sure about the branding either, telling J2 that his battlecry is “a little too Silver Age for today’s audience.”

Gone is the confidence we saw in Spider-Girl that this fictional universe can stand on its own rather than in relation to someone else’s. J2 begins his opening monologue with “In case you’re new to this particular plane of reality…” and so from the moment we begin to engage with this issue’s world, we’re asked to take a step back and remember that it is just one of many. Even to our viewpoint character, his reality is only provisional.

Then a flying car shows up and someone says “we must be living in someone’s future!”

With that, the MC2 characters abandon their claim to their own present. The world in which they live isn’t their now. It’s someone else’s future. It belongs to those someones and they just live in it. The line asserts that this world derives its meaning from its relation to another. Of the five characters who speak in this story, three of them make moves to downplay the extent to which the MC2 universe matters.

While the way in which the dialogue and the branding address the reader is often confused, J2 is a comic very certain as to whose needs its main character is to serve.

DeFalco’s teenagers are all about the nerd/jock binary. Spider-Girl’s social problems arise from her being equally successful in both groups and having to deal with the fallout of constantly crossing the streams. J2 offers the more traditional power fantasy of a nerd who is, secretly, bigger and stronger than all those mean jocks that pick on him. This is complicated by race. As Zane Yama, our hero experiences life as the son of his Asian mother. As J2 he experiences life as the son of his white father. The way this interacts with the standard male empowerment fantasy isn’t something the comic yet seems prepared to talk about out loud.

What it is really hyped to talk about is how J2 feels about large men. The comic appears to offer the consolatory pleasure of letting young men who feel disempowered imagine how cool it would be if you could transform into what it terms a “beef muffin.” Then you’d show them, you’d show them all.

the_Insult_add

That Charles Atlas Ad

There’s a lot of that about. But what makes J2 interesting is that it runs with the idea that even if you did suddenly change from the kid who gets sand kicked in his face to the hero of the beach, you’d probably retain negative associations with large men.

J2 is a comic about a weedy kid who can transform into a large man, but is really, really unsure how he feels about large men. The primary relationship the book keeps returning to is between J2 and his Flash Thompson figure. His every night is filled with terrifying dreams of his enormous father looming over him in pursuit. One issue of J2 is an expansion of a scene in A-Next that exists so we can watch him bond with the Incredible Hulk. He is terrified of his own naked body.

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Panels from J2 #1

To the standard, if racially inflected, power fantasy and been added bucketfuls of paranoia and ambivalent sexual anxiety. If you could turn into a beef muffin, this book tells its hero, I’m afraid that would not resolve all your feelings about beef muffins.

This issue is about J2’s feelings towards women though. “Sure, I know some major lookers.” he complains,  “But they usually ignore me — or shove me into the best friend/faithful confidant role. There’s gotta be a girl for me somewhere!”

The character’s friendzone narrative is somewhat challenged by the story, since it turns out that when women do make advances towards him that doesn’t resolve all his feelings about women. But only somewhat. We’re still expected to have some sympathy for his viewpoint by the end. As I say, this comic has a very clear idea of the sort of person it was addressing, even if it was unsure of how to reach them outside of comic shops.

Have Them Fight God: The Second Time Doom was Santa

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.  This one’s a little dry at the start, to be honest, but I promise we’ll all be having fun by the end.

Today it’s…

A-Next #5

cover

… supposedly from February 1998, but since it’s a Christmas issue I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you told me that cover date was a tissue of lies. This is the comic in which the MC2 begins to directly sequalise material from Tom DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run.

Words/Plot/Pencils by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. Finishes by Al Milgrom. Letters by Dave Sharpe. Colours by Bob Sharen.

GLOSSARY

The MC2:  A Tom DeFalco-written late nineties imprint. It dealt with a new generation of Marvel heroes and, with its fresh start and its gestures at Silver Age storytelling, offered relief from the hellscape of narrative convolution and misapplied EXTREME aesthetics that had constituted much of mid-nineties Marvel.

Tom DeFalco’s Fantastic Four Run: A  hellscape of narrative convolution and misapplied EXTREME aesthetics such as constituted much of mid-nineties Marvel.

ONE

Across the three MC2 launch books, Spider-Girl, A-Next and J2: The Son of the Original Juggernaut, DeFalco constructed a new future for the Marvel universe. As we saw in What If? #105 and Spider-Girl #3 then this universe came to exist on the scale it did because of a creative drive towards worldbuilding, while many of its eccentricities came to exist because of the areas where DeFalco resisted that drive. From the perspective of Spider-Girl, we’ve looked at the culture and society of the America that Spider-Girl inhabits. This comic lets us go bigger.

How does this new world work on a global level? How do the Great Houses of the Superheroes relate to each other, to their governments, and to international political institutions? Now we’ve got an idea of what this world is like, we need to have a think about who’s in charge.How does power work around here? Where are the swells who run this show?

A-Next #3 provides a case study in exactly that by showing us how the international and superheroic establishment deals with one specific humanitarian crisis; the reconstruction of Latveria.

Let’s briefly run through the agencies involved:

Doctor Doom was the former monarch of Latveria. He disappeared several years ago, following the horrific devastation of his kingdom.   

Namor was the one who devastated Latveria. Typical. Absolutely typical. In A-Next #3 this ‘devastation’ was presented as having been a massacre, but this issue paints him less harshly. Here it just seems that the infrastructure of the country got smashed up a bit in a scrap between him and Doom.

Whatever it was Namor did, it caused him to regrow his hair and beard to his old soup kitchen look, team some frayed green rags with some jumbo gold accessories and mope around the coast of Hawaii in a big smelly sulk. Or, as he puts it, “alone with my torment.”

A-Next #3 saw him brought out of this torpor by Doctor Strange, who employed a moderately complex series of psychological manipulations to “prod Namor back into proactivity.” We often see Strange take on the role of Namor’s therapist, sometimes even with Namor’s consent, but his actions seem ill advised here. If literally the last proactive thing someone did was destroy a country then I’m not sure I’d have returning that person to proactivity at the top of my To Do list of unsolicited meddling. Nevertheless, Namor doesn’t do anything in the issue at hand. I just mention this stuff because it’s fun.     

SHIELD appear here in two aspects; As peacekeeping troops on the ground and as an agency capable of calling in superheroes to act on their behalf. They are either maintaining a persistent presence in post-Namor Latveria or have gone there on a specific mission to look for one missing child. The first seems the more plausible but you never know.

The United Nations is the framework through which the world powers are approaching the Latverian reconstruction, seemingly ineffectively. The UN is described as having been “bickering over it for years, debating the best way to rebuild.”

The Great Houses now all stand active. We know little yet of ‘the X-People’ except that members seem to be able to move freely between them and the Avengers, so they are likely not considered a criminal organisation. The Fantastic Five have remained continuously operational since they were the Fantastic Four. A new team calling themselves ‘The Avengers’  has formed and been legitimised as indeed being the actual Avengers by dint of the approval of the old team’s butler and the nonprofit that funded them. Their relationship to the state has yet to be formalised, all official Avengers clearances having long expired according to A-Next #2.

The US government has an interest in Latveria evidenced by its tight control over the conditions under which its citizens may travel there. It is implicitly one of the parties using “the poor country [as] a political football.”

Those are our players.  How do they relate to each other, how do they interact, and how do those interactions shape the response to the Latveria situation?

SHIELD is always slippery. Dependant on the needs of the story, it swings between being an international organisation and being subject to unilateral whims of the US executive. We should never take for granted that we know what SHIELD is, what they’re doing, or who they work for. Even before you start using the concept to tell stories about conspiracies, infiltrators and inter-agency rivalries, SHIELD is a conceptual muddle due to successive writers treating ‘the US’ and ‘some vague notion of a world government’ as effectively interchangeable. The version in the films, for example, ends up as a  global organisation where nobody minds the ‘H’ standing for ‘Homeland.’

Their connection to the UN is probably the most useful thing to watch, and there are a few clues here as to how that connection works in the MC2. The request for the Fantastic Five to intervene in Latveria is made by “the UN and SHIELD” which suggests a functional distinction; A request from one is not automatically understood to be a request from the other. We also see that the UN is capable of putting restrictions on SHIELD, who are permitted to operate in Latveria but not to go near the spooky ruins of Doom’s castle. That particular restriction is telling as it seems to come not from a concern for the safety of SHIELD personnel but from a desire to stop them obtaining the castle’s dark secrets. The picture we come away with is that SHIELD aren’t understood as a fully integrated arm of the United Nations but that they act in concert, are subject to their authority, and are not entirely trusted by them. The dark secrets of Castle Doom can’t be protected by having them taken into SHIELD custody. The dark secrets of Castle Doom can only be protected by keeping SHIELD away.

How do these organisations interface with superheroes? Well, the thing that obligates the Fantastic Five to act is that they were asked to directly by “the big guy.” That could mean anyone, I suppose, but contextually it makes most sense that it be the Director of SHIELD. It’s written as if the reader is supposed to know who this big guy is, and ‘the director of SHIELD’ is the slot which we immediately have a ‘big guy’ character in mind to fill. So SHIELD can exert a level of compulsion on the Fantastic Five. That they have been asked means that they have to go.

They don’t though. They pass the mission on to the new Avengers at their request. That needs squaring, certainly, but not with SHIELD. The Fantastic Five need to have the transfer of the mission to the Avengers approved by the UN. It’s one organisation that mandated the mission, but another with whom the details must be resolved.    

One further authority needs to give their approval; the US Government. They have a stipulation. They’ll only allow the mission if the American Dream is part of the team that goes. At this point the motivations and position on the team of Shannon Carter, the American Dream, are still a source of mystery and drama. So it’s unclear to the reader why the US are adamant that she must be deployed. Are they briefing her and she reporting to them? Or is it merely for propagandistic value? We don’t know. We just know that the Avengers can’t go to Latveria unless someone goes with them dressed in the US flag.

The Avengers, who have still to arrive at a sense of their overall mission, have no shared interest in Latveria. One of them is motivated by the financial opportunity; a successful mission there would enhance their reputations in ways that could be commercially exploited. Another is concerned for the individual child whose disappearance prompted the mission. One, the Avenger who requested the mission, is using it as a pretext to get into Latveria, something she’s been trying to do for years. ‘The Avengers’ here is an entity that acts as a single agency but shares no common purpose.

The Fantastic Five’s common purpose, under its new leadership, remains ambiguous. The real function of the FF is always to meet the emotional needs of its members, but its strategy for doing so necessitates more outward-looking mission statements. The FF are the FF so they can be the FF, but to be the FF they need something to do all day. How, in the MC2, do they keep themselves busy?

We’re no closer here to answering that than we were in Spider-Girl #3, but at least here we get a sense of what the Fantastic Five consider the limits of their sphere of interest. According to their leader there is “no good reason” for the FF to go to Latveria as “No way is Doom back.” That’s the circumstance that would make their involvement appropriate. The search for the missing child and the wider plight of the Latverian people are taken to be inappropriate organisational concerns for the Fantastic Five.      

So, acting on Latveria we’ve got individual governments operating through the United Nations, a SHIELD that’s answerable to the UN but understood as an interest in it’s own right, and the superheroic Great Houses who have no real agenda but are willing to act at the behest of the UN/SHIELD and answer to their own governments.

We’ve also got a figure who, for now, we’ll call Santa Claus.  

Santa Claus is the one person in the story in possession of all the information. Towards the end of the issue he asks the Avengers a question. “Do you know why the politicians have not rushed to rebuild Latveria?” he asks.

He answers his own question by revealing a dark secret. But it is illuminating that that question needs a dark secret to answer it, because that presupposes that without one the world’s politicians would have rushed to rebuild Latveria. Foreign powers wouldn’t just have rebuilt a nation levelled by Namor the Sub-Mariner, they’d have rushed to do so. They’d have been keen as mustard.  Sadly we don’t get much evidence as to why they’d have been in such a rush, be it from altruism, to stabilise the region, to cash in on construction contracts, or to mitigate a refugee crisis, because they didn’t. Because of the dark secret.

Castle Doom is full of Doom’s “nightmarish weapons of mass destruction” and everyone wants a bit of that action. It’s also full of Doombots though, all set to ‘patrol/destroy intruders’ mode. The interested powers are all waiting for the Doombots to run out of batteries so that they can divide the spoils. Latveria’s reconstruction has not begun because the world’s governments are waiting for killer robots to run out of batteries.   

The MC2 presents a Silver Age face to the world – the first page of A-Next’s first issue cautioned us not to turn it over unless we felt “FULLY PREPARED TO EMBARK ON THE WILDEST THRILL RIDE IN THE HISTORY OF COMICS!” – but a huge distinction between these comics and the comics they’re impersonating is to be found in how they view authority. The MC2 is a long way from Smilin’ Stan’s Cold War paternalism. People would be very quick to talk about how post-9/11 this comic was if it wasn’t from Nineteen Ninety-Eight.     

Power in the MC2, as it acts to prolong and to eventually resolve the situation in Latveria, is about self-interest, sentimentality, and waiting for Doombots to run out of batteries.

TWO

This issue’s cover promises a “Don’t blink appearance by the Fantastic Five!” That’s what we’re here for. Though the appearance is two pages long. By the standards of this project, that’s practically Cerberus. We’ll be back to looking at a silent one panel glimpse next week.

Those two pages are mostly given over to a conversation between Scott Lang and the character we’ve been told is now called John Storm. It’s our first clear look at John in his not-on-fire form., which we’d previously only seen for a couple of panels in Spider-Girl #3, where the colouring and lack of an introduction kind of made him look like Ozymandias.  

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Spider-Girl #3

While we now have a definitive visual for adult John Storm, one that’s had him change to a red costume and abandon his fleeting regal pretensions, what we still don’t have is any evidence of a single person in this universe ever calling him ‘John.’ He’s been ‘Johnny’ to everyone who has addressed him so far and is ‘Johnny’ here to Scott and ‘Uncle Johnny’ to Cassie Lang.

Then again, Scott here is ‘Scotty’ to both John and Ben. That’s unusual for Scott and unlike how we’ve previously seen those characters address him. It seems that the sixteen or so years between the DeFalco Fantastic Four run and the MC2 have seen a more relaxed affability develop between between the Fantastic Five and the Langs.

Relaxed affability is very much the tone of Johnny and Scotty’s conversation, as Scott wants to do a sort of “I can’t believe how much my little angel has grown” dadchat. Myself, I find it a little insensitive for him to be listing the Joys of Fatherhood at someone whose only child was a laser-powered alien egg, but Johnny seems happy enough to indulge it. He is visibly enjoying the conversation so perhaps his forestalled experience of fatherhood didn’t leave any scars. After all, his sister has never been seen to worry about that time she gave birth to a clutch of brain-eating parasites. The Storms, as a family, might just not be that stressed about occasionally begetting sinister eggs.     

John alludes to Peter Parker in a way that lets us know that they’ve been in touch and that Peter went for a similar dadchat. I really want to see the three of them down the pub together now.

PETEY: So, Scotty, how’s your daughter doing?

SCOTTY: Good, good. They grow up so fast don’t they? She’s a superhero now. Where do the years go, eh?

PETEY: Best not think about it.

SCOTTY: And how’s May?

PETEY: Good, good. They grow up so fast don’t they? She’s a superhero now.

SCOTTY: What about your little one, Johnny? Not so little now, I expect!

JOHN: Good, good. Still a laser-powered egg not spoken of since 1994. They grow up so fast don’t they?

SCOTTY: And how’re your sister’s three?

JOHN: Good, good. Yeah. Really good, yeah. Valeria still doesn’t exist in this continuity and the brain-eating parasite has still not been spoken of since 1981. They grow up so fast don’t they?

PETEY: Franklin still calling himself ‘Psi-Lord’?

JOHN: Yeah.

Also calling Franklin ‘Psi-lord’ is Lyja, his aunt. Just while they go about their day-to-day business around their home. ‘Psi-Lord’ she calls him. “Don’t strain yourself, Psi-lord!” she says.

Now, this sort of thing is perfectly normal in the Silver and Bronze Age styles that the MC2 books intermittently affect. When reading pre-Claremont X-Men material we’d be wasting our time stressing about why people are calling their family members by superhero names over breakfast. Pass the butter, Human Torch.That’s just how they live their lives. Even it if it seems weird to revisit after so many years of modern Marvel that read like…

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Tony?

IRON MAN: Steve.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Tony.

IRON MAN: Steve.  

The reasons why the Fantastic Five are all talking to each other so impersonally in this comic are stylistic and expository. But the thing is… they’re all doing this off to the side in the same panel as the ongoing chat between Johnny and ‘Scotty.’

chatsThe contrast between the naturalism-lite of one conversation and the genre tropes of the other forces you to think about why these people might be calling each other these things.

Let’s run through them.

Ben is lifting a heavy object for Reed. This happens so often I honestly suspect that Reed occasionally constructs heavy objects for no reason other than for Ben to lift, that he may feel special and proud.

“My telekinesis will help lighten your load, Uncle Ben” says Franklin. The conversation then begins with use of given names set as the default. Whoever now uses anything else will be conspicuously breaking that precedent.   

“Don’t strain yourself, Psi-lord!” says Lyja. Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Formalising the mode of address at the same time as admonishing really turbo-charges the admonition. What’re you doing there, Lyja? What’s your relationship with your nephew like? It comes across as protective but weirdly hostile and I wish to learn more.

Once Lyja’s established that action names are the appropriate mode of address to use while lifting heavy objects, everyone else follows suit. Though Ben subverts it slightly by calling her ‘Ms Fantastic’ and Franklin ‘Franklin.’

Reed, who let us not forget is now a brain inside a little flying robot, says “Careful, Thing! That generator is very delicate!” which is typical Reed behaviour. It reads as fussier than normal though just because he’s now a little flying robot, buzzing about the place impotently. The shadow of C3P0 falls upon all fussy robots, and you’re as likely to read that line in his voice as any you’ve previously imagined for Reed. Also, there’s a new weight to hearing him urge caution and care given that we don’t yet know why Reed is a brain inside a robot or what life is like for him now.  

You can imagine it involves a real struggle to hang on to a sense of self. The climactic drama of the then-current Chris Claremont Fantastic Four run was Reed Richards’ fight to understand that he was still Richard Richards despite having to cosplay Doctor Doom for a bit. That proved difficult for him. In the Earth X continuity it proved impossible, as a different Reed fully became Doctor Doom while cosplaying him for different reasons. The late Nineties teemed with versions of Reed Richards forgetting that they were Reed Richards because they were wearing someone else’s clothes. I put it to you that caring for the mental health of a Reed Richards who is just a disembodied brain probably requires a delicate touch.

So, anyway, Ben addresses him as “Big Brain.”

This is his new action name. Big Brain. Its adoption at first seems like a terrible strategy. Abandoning the action name “Mister Fantastic” seems like conceding that you are no longer fantastic, and adopting any name other than your own at a point where you need to be reminded of who you are seems like emotional risk without prospect of reward. Everything about ‘Big Brain’ feels defeatist. Why would Reed call himself this, and why (when ‘Reed’ is still an acceptable alternative) would anyone else go along with it?  

Then you remember that Ben has always called Reed ‘Big Brain.’ And that’s what Reed, in his current circumstances, needs to hear. That something that was previously true about him  remains true. That something that was true about his friendship with Ben remains true. Reed needs something to connect the identity he has now with the identity he had before. What he’s using is his most stable relationship. Reed knows he is still himself because he is still who his best friend always said he was.  

THREE

History works differently for the Avengers.

Spider-Girl takes Amazing Spider-Man #418 as its starting point, rewrites it, and then imagines a future sixteen years hence. ‘The Fantastic Five’ takes Fantastic Four #414 and imagines the characters and concerns of that issue not being swept clean by Onslaught and Heroes Reborn, but rather continuing to matter for a further sixteen years. The FF and the Spider-Families get futures based on them having been allowed to progress invisibly forwards through time without a reset. Peter has been allowed to take off the costume and leave it off, without external market forces forcing him to fish it out of a dumpster. Ben, free of the pull that always snaps him back to his classic design, has been allowed to keep any metal bits he’s acquired.

Whatever Matt Murdock may get up to in main continuity then something will always happen to snap him back to being a Hell’s Kitchen lawyer. Come death or disbarment, there’ll always be something to eventually restore him to that status quo, no matter how vast a leap backwards must be made to reach that Point A from whatever Point C,D, or E he has advanced to.

In the MC2,  Matt Murdock has been allowed to die. He is now some sort of ghost who co-habits with the demon Zathros inside the body of Peter Parker’s clone’s son.

SCOTTY: And how’s the rest of the family?

PETEY: Good, good.  

 

Most MC2 characters we’ve met so far have histories that have been seen to function something like this:

  • Things happen.
  • Those things stay happened.
  • Subsequent things happen as a consequence.

This is a popular idea of how a reality might function. Many have even suggested that ours is a little bit like that. It’s unusual for superhero universes though.

And even in the MC2 it is not consistent. The FF and the Spider-Family might be inhabiting personal futures generated by supposing that their lives have ticked along sequentially from a given point, but the Avengers are not.        

The first, and least spooky, thing to note is that the Avengers have undergone a reset. The premise of A-Next is that the original Avengers disbanded ages ago, and now a new team have come together to give it whirl. The Avengers haven’t trundled along like the FF. This is a punctuated history.  

One effect of this is to make A-Next a sequel to a non-specific idea of ‘the Avengers’. Amazing Spider-Man #418 and Fantastic Four #414 are the effective end points of the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four to which Spider-Girl and Fantastic Five provide sequels, but there is no interest in being so precise here. This doesn’t “come after” the Avengers of the then current Busiek/Perez run. This doesn’t “come after” the pre-Heroes Reborn Avengers that were contemporaries of the departure points for Spidey and the FF. This just comes after ‘The Avengers.’ We’re not dealing with the legacy of a specific iteration. We’re dealing with the legacy of the concept. Events are not proceeding from previous events but from ideas.   

That has implications for the spookier way in which A-Next’s history works differently.

Nowadays we all think of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 miniseries as depicting an alternate universe. We’ve seen later miniseries set there. It’s got its own special number. It was part of Secret Wars IV. It’s an alternate universe, right?

Well, certainly. It is now.

But back when it was originally being promoted then Marvel were very keen for us to know that it was neither dream, hoax nor imaginary story but that the 1602 in which it was set was the actual honest-to-gosh 1602 of the main Marvel universe. The comic bears that out. Its conceit is that a Captain America from the future falls back into history and that his presence there distorts reality such as to cause it to grow its own Tudor versions of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, et al. The addition of one element of Marvel’s superhero mythos to a different period causes that period to rewrite itself and produce its own version of the Silver Age.

That represents a conception of history on the other end of a spectrum from “things happen, those things stay happened, and then subsequent things happen as a result.” 1602’s 1602 doesn’t have a Matt Murdock because of a succession of material events within a universe but because reality has shaped itself to tell a story. In the work of Gaiman’s friend and collaborator Terry Pratchett this is called ‘narrative causality’, and narrative causality is a very apt description of the model 1602 proposes for superhero universes.     

Locked in Doom’s darkest dungeons, with no distractions and plenty of time to think, 1602’s Reed Richards rejects atoms as the fundamental constituents of his universe. He proposes ‘stories’ instead. “I posit we are in a universe which favours stories. A universe in which no story can ever truly end; in which there can be only continuances.”

This is a very superhero-specific version of narrative causality. In the universes where there’s a Granny Weatherwax then there’s no suggestion that the principle works to eternally prolong stories, only that it works to tell them. But in the universes where there’s a Reed Richards then a story is something with a beginning, a middle and a cosmological prohibition against ends.       

It’s a metafictional move, taking a fact that’s true about the fiction and asserting it as true within the fiction, but it is one almost necessitated by the strangeness of superhero narratives. Any conventional causal model would collapse if forced to account for Matt Murdock’s ability to revert to being a Hell’s Kitchen lawyer whenever required, but a model that can account for that being the natural resting point of his story is onto a winner.

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1602 #7

It is materially possible for Ben to stop being a monster, but the reality of narrative trumps the illusion of materiality.

Back in the MC2, our new Avengers are tightly in the grip of narrative causality. Reforming the Avengers is causing the Avengers story to retell itself through them. Jubilee and Speedball are supposed to be members of the team according to what we saw in What If? #105, but when A-Next #1 tells the story of the team’s formation then they are quickly dropped and the continuity fudged, so that the new founding members are analogues of the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Ant Man/The Wasp (Stinger covers both of those). The story literally rearranges itself in from of our eyes so that these founders can directly correspond to the founders of the Nineteen Sixty-three team.

“Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper” writes Pratchett in Witches Abroad. “Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.”

And A-Next’s Avengers continued to follow the Silver Age team’s groove downhill to ‘Cap’s Kooky Quartet’…  

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…Where the A-Next founders are displaced by analogues of the Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, all summoned into being by the same logic that caused the Elizabethan age to grow a Matt Murdock. Add Captain America to 1602 and that’s how history responds. Reform the Avengers in the MC2 and this is how history responds. By reshaping lives to fit the patterns.  

Somewhere laughing at all this is the God that the 1963 Avengers formed to fight. The same God that the A-Next Avengers, in their cycle of the pattern, formed to fight. The God that always makes them Avengers.

storytime

Loki: Agent of Asgard #13

FOUR

Where things get interesting is where the MC2’s idea of history as continuous lived experience intersects with the MC2’s idea of history as repeated patterns subject to narrative causality. Where the world that’s a linear continuation of the Fantastic Four intersects with the world that’s a cyclical retelling of the Avengers. The name for that intersection is ‘Cassie Lang.’

The Cassie Lang of the MC2 is a superhero called Stinger. I’ve got people in my ear right now telling me that the Cassie Lang in the current main Marvel continuity is also a superhero called Stinger. That sounds fascinating in terms of pre-existing patterns imposing themselves on lives, but sadly I think that happened after Secret Wars IV and so is outside the bounds of the comics that Have Them Fight God considers. I ask that this paragraph be stricken from the record.

The Cassie Lang of the MC2 is a superhero called Stinger. She’s our viewpoint character for A-Next and our direct through-line from DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run. She was there for its final scene, an epilogue in Tales of the Marvel Universe. If you go from DeFalco’s Fantastic Four to A-Next then the curtain falls and rises on Cassie Lang. As with the Fantastic Five, what mattered to her then is what matters to her now.

What mattered to the young Cassie of Fantastic Four was Kristoff Vernard, the other kid living in Four Freedoms Plaza at the time. She was staying there with her scientist dad. He was the estranged ward of Doom. Could I make it any more obvious? The DeFalco run was loathe to leave any possible heterosexual pairing unpaired; Five adult men lived in that building and the only one who wasn’t actively trying to cop off with Sue was her brother. So Cassie developed a crush on Kristoff. He was twelve and her age was a sometimes uncomfortable matter of disagreement between the writing and the art.

Shortly before the time came for the vaudeville hook of Onslaught to drag DeFalco’s cast off-stage, the ballad of Cassie and Kristy had reached an interesting verse. Their story became about her teaching Kristoff to integrate with the world, from a position hindered by her being very much his junior and helped by her very much not have been raised by Doom and imprinted with his brainwaves.

The test case for both Cassie’s attempts to get Kristoff to behave reasonably, and for how Cassie was to see herself in relation to him, was their differing approaches to Donny, a boy from Cassie’s school. Donny was concealing the physical abuse he was suffering at the hands of his father. Cassie’s solution was to gently encourage him to talk to a teacher and have the school orchestrate a process that would see him and his mother taken into a shelter and the father provided with counselling. Kristoff’s solution was to unleash the wrath of the Von Doom’s upon the lying whelp until he was compelled to speak true. A rushed conclusion revealed that Cassie’s strategy was probably most helpful for Donny. It also saw her reach the settled opinion that Kristoff was kinda cute but a bit of a dweeb.      

By the time of the MC2’s “sixteen years later” present then Kristoff seems to be understood as the great love of Cassie’s life. It is to find him that she’s been trying to get into Latveria, and Ben judges that anyone who knows her will know that nothing can stop her. They were in a relationship when Namor attacked Latveria  and have not seen each other since. As with almost everything related to the Fantastic Five that we’ve seen so far, it’s a concept from the DeFalco Fantastic Four run allowed to grow in timelapsed soil. Lyja is Ms Fantastic. Ben has more metal bits. Cassie and Kristoff are war torn lovers.  

The other thing that Cassie has been doing in between where DeFalco left her and now is becoming a superhero, a process she has approached eccentrically. A-Next #1 sees her and her father working on ‘Project Stinger,’ a propulsion unit based on Hank Pym’s old designs. She’s got a super-costume, super-powers and a super-name good to go, but what doesn’t seem to be in place is any expectation that what she’s becoming is a superhero. She decides to become one impulsively and Scott is mortified when he finds out.

What, I wonder, did he think ‘Project Stinger’ was for if not to produce a superhero called Stinger? Project Stinger involved building superhero stuff and having Cassie fly around in it. What was its goal if not to help Cassie become someone who flies around calling herself Stinger? My suspicion, based on Cassie’s dialogue in A-Next #2 about stepping out from Scott’s shadow, is that ‘Project Stinger’ was about developing new tech for him to use as Ant-Man.

Anyway, she’s not having that. And Scott’s initially not having her decision. In his indignation he brings up an old argument and produces my favourite line in any DeFalco comic I’ve read ever.

“I don’t like this, Cassie! It was bad enough when you employed Dr Pym’s work to implant wings on yourself — but now you expect me to sit back while you play at being a super hero!”

Think through the sequence of events here and you, like me, will love Cassie Lang more than you ever have before.

She develops her superhero tech before there’s an expectation or resolution for her to become a superhero. But BEFORE EVEN THAT then she grafts wings to herself. This is a separate matter from her being a superhero. Cassie Lang has not grafted wings to herself for the sake of fighting crime, she has done so for the sake of grafting wings to herself. How cool is that?

So the formula for MC2 Cassie is very much “Where DeFalco left the material + Imaginary Time.” She has been subject to the sequential model of history but, on joining the new Avengers in a format slot that combines the role of Wasp and Ant Man, she has stepped into the cyclical model. It’s an interesting position to be in. The son of Thunderstrike is in sort of the same boat, but I don’t care about him. What’s Cassie going to do? Is her story still as much her own as when she was making weird offscreen body mod choices, or has stepping into the Avengers myth handed her over to Pratchett’s parasites?

She and Kristoff have a lot to talk about. This sort of shit is very much the central dilemma of his life. Adopted by Doom and neurologically rewritten by Doom, the purpose that has been foisted upon his life is to replicate Doom. To be a retelling of a story. He goes back and forth on how he feels about that.

In this comic Kristoff is especially ambivalent in how he responds to what he calls the “mixed blessing” of being Doom Two. He’s voluntarily wearing the mask and the robe. He’s stepped into his role as heir to the throne of Latveria. Kristoff is committed to being the Doctor Doom of this comic that promises Doctor Doom.

His projects are at odds with that identity however. We see him destroy Doom’s arsenal, breaking the political deadlock and allowing the reconstruction of Latveria to begin. We see him sensitively working to protect vulnerable children, the very thing we saw Baby Cassie teaching him to do the last time DeFalco wrote them. What are we to make of this man who both is and is not trapped inside Doom’s story?   

The bonny moppet whose disappearance precipitated this adventure proposes an answer. Who was Kristoff?

A-Next 005-022

The Avengers, perhaps endeared by her lack of exposure to Coca-Cola’s marketing, agree. “Like the kid says,” American Dream reports, “Santa Claus!”

Kristoff has managed to escape being a repetition of Victor von Doom’s story by becoming a repetition of an older one.  The paths may run down the mountainside, but at least one may switch tracks.

And this path, at least, is one Doctor Doom has surely never walked.

santadoom

What The!? #10

Oh. Except that one time.

Have Them Fight God: Prince Philip and King Ben

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.

So far we’ve focused on the MC2 imprint, with articles on Spider-Girl #0 and #3, but this week we’re talking a break from that line’s retro take on Marvel‘s future to look at a comic from the same year that attempted a contemporary take on the past.

Today it’s…

SHADOWS & LIGHT #2

…from April 1998, an issue of an anthology series whose lead story explores the Thing’s monstrosity and demonstrates it to be lesser than that of the British royal family.

Story and art by Lee Weeks.

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ONE

In 2014, if you wanted to buy a lovely statue of Babs Tarr’s Batgirl then you were buying it in greyscale. By 2015 there was a coloured-in version, but that first item of merchandise for that notably colourful version of the character was notably devoid of colour. That seems weird. Even weirder is the reason why. It was a matter of prestige. They hadn’t run out of paint. This was an honour.

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The Batman: Black and White brand still matters. Twenty years on and ‘Batman: Black and White’ still means something and can have an effect on properties as remote from it in terms of DC’s publishing history as the Babs Tarr Batgirl. Batman: Black and White, a four issue miniseries from 1996 which I’m not sure anyone actually reads any more, has punched well above its weight in terms of brand endurance.

A lot of the little oddments you find coming out from Marvel in the late nineties are the company’s rather blunt ‘answers’ to some sales or critical success that DC was enjoying. The DC of that period had many of both. Shadows and Light is Marvel’s answer to Batman: Black and White. Marvel’s own black and white, artist-led, four issue anthology. Shadows and Light is not a brand that has similarly endured. There will be no Shadows and Light statue of Spider-Gwen.

Shadows and Light is okay though. It’s not embarassing like Marvel’s attempt to do VERTIGO or interminable like Marvel’s attempt to do Kingdom Come. There’s some quality stuff in here. This second issue has got a nice little Jim Starlin thing with Doctor Strange, a Jill Thompson Spider-Man story, and Liam Sharp using Man-Thing to play about with the style of Bissette and Totleben’s Swamp Thing. It’s all fine. It’s only been forgotten because Batman: Black and White is an immediately exciting and focused concept while “Here’s some black and white stories about a random selection of Marvel characters is not.

TWO

Our lead story is a Ben Grimm piece by Lee Weeks. To foster the sense that these are important works by important people then each story is introduced by an interview with its creator about its function and themes. In his, Weeks shares a couple of interesting thoughts about Ben. One is that “he’s the Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) of the Marvel universe.” Park that for now, but remember it for later weeks. That’s going to come up again.

Because the other Ben theory that Weeks states here is the meat of this specific story. It’s the idea that people see Ben as a monster “mainly because that’s the way he views himself […] he’s mostly responsible for the way he’s perceived and should give people more of a chance to see him as a man.”

Ben is, most comics agree, a monster.

Ben has, most comics agree, a body that can be thought of as disfigured.

Those are more or less constants. What varies wildly is the relationship between Ben’s disfigurement and Ben’s monstrosity. In the Mark Waid run, for example, Ben’s a monster to Ben and to Ben alone; He sees himself as a monster while the world, regardless of his disfigurement, sees him as nothing of the sort. In the John Byrne run, on the other hand, Ben’s ongoing disfigurement is a consequence of his monstrosity; his own psychological flaws are what invariably revert him to his rocky form despite all of Reed’s successful cures.

So to get a handle on what’s happening in a Ben Grimm story the first thing to look at should probably always be how that story relates disfigurement and monstrosity. Lee Weeks’ take is that Ben views himself as a monster on account of his disfigurement, this causes him to act like a monster and that consequentially he’s viewed as a monster by others. That’s the mistake this story reckons Ben is making and it reckons it has a device with which to expose it.

What if, it asks, Ben didn’t know what sort of body he had, but that everyone around him did? How might he behave then? And how might he be perceived?

Understandably there’s a lot of work needed to create a situation in which somebody has no idea that they’re an orange giant made of rocks but that everyone around that person can see that truth plainly. How do you tell a story where somebody just doesn’t notice that they’re an orange giant made of rocks?

Naturally you start with amnesia and a blindfold. They don’t solve everything though. Take away a man’s sight and his memory and he’s still got many other means by which he may swiftly apprehend that he’s an orange giant made of rocks, should he indeed be such. The story being in black and white only helps hide the ‘orange’ part.

There’s a gesture at his sense of touch having been compromised too, but little to explain why, during the three days his spends in the community where this story is set, his suspicions about his physicality aren’t aroused by the people around him saying things like “He’s as big as five men!” and “He’s like a great warrior made of stone!” and other subtle clues.

The weirdest thing though is what we’re to understand about Ben’s sense of proprioception here. He spends the story mostly performing manual labour, so he’s obviously able to effectively co-ordinate his body. Yet a climactic moment is him remembering how many fingers he has and how large they are.

He remembers this in the process of saving a life. Chucking himself off the edge of a cliff to grab and save someone who’s falling off it. Ben remembers who he is and performs a heroic action. Hero Reborn? No. This is the moment when Ben becomes a monster.

While saving his friend’s life, all Ben can think about is that this is not what he wants to be or do. “I just wanted to be be pilot,” he complains, “Just wanted to fly.”

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Having saved this guy’s life, Ben then tells him that he doesn’t see any value in him having done so. Then he throws a massive stompy temper tantrum, terrifying all around. Lee Weeks has told his story; The Ben that is seen as a monster is the Ben that acts like a monster because of how Ben feels about looking like a monster. My macro level view of the massively multi-authored, multi-decade continuity that is the Fantastic Four can’t sign off on that exactly, but we’ll hang onto it and compare it to other Ben Theories as we go along.

What I find more interesting, to be honest, is the question of what Ben wants. This is a Ben who receives no emotional reward from acts of heroism. He takes no pride in it and takes no joy from gratitude. There’s nothing in being a hero for Ben. Action is not his reward. What does he want?

THREE

And what does the industrialised world want from the idea of the cargo cult?

We kind of love it.

In Britain the right-wing press never misses the most tenuous opportunity to remind us that the Yaohnanen tribe of Vanuatu worship Prince Philip as a god.

Even though they sort of don’t really.

What’s happened sounds to be more like the Yaohnanen tribe got a whiff of Prince Philip’s importance via some obnoxious seventies display of imperialist majesty and made a reasonable association between the divine and the British Monarchy. The British Monarchy being  an institution that was then literally claiming to own the Yaohnanen’s world. The tribe making that association was reasonable because not only only was the material history of why the British were co-owning Vanuatu with the French much more absurd than divine mandate, but because an association with the divine is the actual foundational justification of the existence of monarchs in the first place. The link between monarchs and the divine that the Yaohnanen had made was far weaker and less fanciful than the link asserted by Britain’s own constitution.

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Right and Left: People behaving reasonably. Centre: Someone being a dick.

Despite the miniscule amount of self-awareness the British Establishment would need to apprehend the above, they never have. They probably don’t know how many fingers they’ve got either. So they’ve spend the last forty years egging the Yaohnanen on for the lulz and sending Karl Pilkington over to smirk at them. Karl fucking Pilkington.

We do this because we are deeply and depressingly flattered by the idea of indigenous peoples worshipping our detritus. Cannibal tribes bowing in obeisance to Radio Luxemborg appear in Will Hay’s smash hit 1936 comedy Windbag the Sailor and we’ve never got over the idea. Our response to the existence of cargo cults is to take it as evidence of our sophistication over peoples to whom even our trash is of value. Though I suppose it’s encouraging that we understand that Prince Philip is trash.

So here is a story where an amnesiac Ben Grimm crash lands on an isolated South Pacific island. It’s Lee Weeks’ solution to the problem of how to provide him with a community who can respond to his behaviour but who won’t mention that they’ve seen him on the telly. It can’t just do that though. The set up is to provide an economical solution to the problem of putting Ben in a social vacuum where there is also society, but it’s denied that economy by crash landing in a tradition of dodgy writing about South Pacific tribal peoples encountering things that have washed-up on their shores or fallen from their skies. The simplicity of a story about how Ben presents to others is complicated by its proximity to stories of how the Other processes the industrialised world’s bits and bobs.

The first move the story makes here is the sort of thing Carl Barks liked to do. Ben is not the first intercession into this tribal culture. That was ‘Kelmack’, who we later learn to be Lt. Kelly MacCormack, a WWII fighter pilot. Ben is interacting with a culture that has already been influenced by the choices of a previous visitor. Reading MacCormack’s diaries towards the end of the story, Ben notes that he “went primitive” but that doesn’t seem to have been quite what he did at all. Rather he seems to have exploited his technologies to set himself up as a king.

How the inhabitants of this story’s unnamed island are to understand Ben is in light of not just their beliefs but in light of prior colonial activity. Already this story is one up on press coverage of the Godly Prince Philip.

The islanders are named, distinguished, and have differing points of view.

Taree understands Ben to be a new king, as promised by Kellmack. Her logic is that there is obviously something special about someone who just walked away from an explosive spaceship crash. Nuntoo takes him to be a demon. Takar confines himself to the immediate material evidence and goes with “great warrior made of stone.” Pakai, and eventually the tribe as a whole, seem mostly convinced by Taree’s arguments and by Ben’s feats of strength and so they settle on “he’s a king.”

But what is the role of ‘king’ here? We don’t see Ben performing any role that looks either executive or ceremonial. We see him in two roles; Patient and construction worker. Regardless of what they think he is, how they mostly treat him is as someone who needs to recover from a spaceship crash. And regardless of this, how Ben mostly behaves is as a construction worker.

That’s not unusual for Ben. Along with ‘wrestler’ then it’s one of the two most frequent things for him to be when he’s not being a superhero. But what isn’t usual is the way that ‘construction worker’ and ‘king’ interact here. Everyone would like Ben to perhaps have some rest and have a go at recovering from his massive ordeal. But, as per Two-in-One Annual #7/Secret Wars: Siege #4, Ben is the man who won’t lie down. He’s up and about carrying heavy objects and building big useful things.

It’s this behaviour, that comics usually have Ben default to because it’s manual and coded as working-class, that here guarantees his kingly nature.

“It’s not possible!” says Nuntoo as Ben carries a big rock.

“It’s for a king!” says Taree.

“Our great king!” chants the crowd as Ben builds a bridge.

The islanders have taken external material and accorded it value, but that’s because they’re getting their big rocks moved and bridges built. They’ve done what every cargo cult does; taken something from outside and put it to a purpose for which they have a cultural use.

FOUR

But what do the Fantastic Four want?

This story’s Fantastic Four is an oddly half-baked attempted at a modernised view of the Silver Age. It’s a generic version of the early team in which Sue has big hair and no discernible personality and everyone talks in a weird mixture of Stan Lee shtick and phrases that have no place in it. Johnny’s line “Cut the crap, big brain!” is my favourite example, but I’m also partial to Ben name dropping Timothy Leary like he’s forgotten which Sixties he’s from.

The situation that’s put Ben on the island is that NASA have come to him asking him to test pilot a rocketship for them. He accepts, the controls freeze up, and it explodes.

Johnny’s understanding of the situation is darker. He seems to think that Ben has purposefully killed herself. Not only is he certain that Ben’s dead, but he’s furious with Reed about it and furious with Reed for continuing to search for Ben.

“You should’ve been so concerned before NASA approached him. You saw him. He hadn’t been that down since he became the Thing.”

Everything’s interesting there. That Johnny’s teasing and provoking of Ben is a strategy to help keep the guy alive is a popular interpretation, but this really shows the sort of responsibility Johnny feels the FF have towards Ben. They are, Johnny here believes, his suicide watch. To let him go off and fly missions for NASA is to fail him because…look! This is what happens.

But what does Ben want? Ben wants to fly. That’s why he takes the NASA mission. That’s what he says he’d rather be doing than saving lives. That’s what he eventually does at the end of this story as he takes the controls of the Pogo Plane.

Reunited with his family, Ben is able to fly.

That’s what he wants and that’s what his family want for him; to create a space where he’s able to. Ben’s not a superhero. He’s part of the Fantastic Four, which is a structure built to allow its members to support each other in perusing their own weird ideas of happiness. And this is one of the foundations on which that structure’s built. Ben wants to fly. The earth loves the air.

Have Them Fight God: Spyral versus Spider-Girl

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. My interest in Marvel characters is inversely proportional to Fox’s ability to market films about them.

Today it’s…

Spider-Girl #3

…from December, 1998. The comic in which Spider-Girl properly introduces us to the MC2 Universe’s Fantastic Five.

‘Spider-Girl’ being May Parker, Peter’s teenage daughter.

‘The MC2 Universe’ being an alternate continuity in which Peter Parker has a teenage daughter.

‘Five’ being a number that’s one bigger than four but which happily still alliterates.

Written by Tom DeFalco. Pencilled by Pat Olliffe. Inked by Al Wiliamson. Lettered by Dave Sharpe. Coloured by Christie Scheele.

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ONE

Things have changed for May since What If #105/Spider-Girl #0. Many of them linguistic.  For example, there have been efforts to give her an official adjective. It’s ‘stunning’ as in  “The Stunning Spider-Girl.” I don’t think it’s going to happen.

The zero issue’s key phrase (“feeling loose and slamming heat”) now seems well on the way to becoming the series’ catchphrase, but in the process is undergoing some variation. Issue one kept with the classic “feeling loose and slamming heat,” but then issue two had “cracking wise and slamming heat.” Issue two also saw May, under relentless attack from a baddie, complain, “I can barely stand — a-and he’s slamming heat!”

Also in flux is the narratorial voice. In issue zero the narrator was explicitly omniscient and external to May’s point of view, given to informing her in the second person of information of which she was unaware (“unknown to you, your parents whisper and huddle in the bleachers”). That started to change over the past two issues as the narrator became more and more aligned with May’s inner monologue. The voice haranguing May became her own as she questioned, congratulated and castigated herself. For a while in the second issue we had two narrators, one of whom was May and one of whom was not, both of whom offered their commentary in visually identical text boxes and both of whom addressed ‘May’ as “you.”  We also had two streams of May’s inner monologue; the narrator when she held that role and her thought balloons when she did not.

Things seem to have settled down by issue three’s denouement.

“Franklin Richards thinks you’re good people! Could he be any more scrumptious?” Says the narrator to May.

“I’m sure we’ll meet again, Spider-Girl!” Says Franklin to May.

“Believe it, cutie!” Says the narrator.

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There’s no coming back from “Believe it, cutie!”

That’s not even one of May’s self-reflective thoughts. That’s just one of her thoughts. Franklin rather than May is the unhearing addressee. The narration boxes are May’s now, to fill with whatever she likes. It feels like she’s just won her first battle for control of her story.

In other theatres, those battles are still ongoing. After the events of issue zero, her parents ruled that her being Spider-Girl was to have been a one-time escapade and that’s that. Peter’s old Spider-gear has been ceremonially burned and they’ve drawn a line under the whole thing. Remarkably, there doesn’t even seem to be much of an ongoing conversation about all this in the Parker household. Over the course of two nights, May acquired superpowers, learned that her father used to be Spider-Man, and apprehended a would-be murderer. The parental line on this seems to be, “Well, that was a thing that happened. Back to normal now. Let’s say no more about it.” I know Peter has a somewhat avoidant personality, but I really feel he should be checking in with his daughter a little more about the whole business. Mary Jane sort of is, but all she’s really throwing May’s way are vague insinuations and recriminations. I’m not sure how she expects these to be helpful.

You can imagine how May’s handling this. She’s dressing up as a Spider-Person and sneaking out at night to fight crime. Of course she is. The reasons she’s giving herself for this behaviour are all painfully spurious but, to be fair, she’s had no guidance on how she’s supposed to process acquiring superpowers, learning that her father used to be Spider-Man, and apprehending a would-be murderer over the course of two nights. Dressing up as a Spider-Person and sneaking out at night to fight crime is a perfectly reasonable way to try and puzzle out who you are when you’ve just been left with those experiences and told to sweep them under the carpet.

Unfortunately, the practical subterfuge necessary to sneak about being a secret spider, and the emotional distance that comes from practicing subterfuge, has driven a rift between May and her parents. Her parents to whom it has not occurred that this rift, along with her changed mood and behavior, might have something to do with that time a couple of days ago when she  acquired superpowers, learned that her father used to be Spider-Man, and apprehended a would-be murderer. They seem to think she’s just randomly being a bit of a dick, and are kind of passive-aggressive about it.

The press and the general public are also as yet unaware that there’s new spider in town, but other superheroes are starting to catch on. Issue two saw her subject to the sceptical scrutiny of the mysterious ‘Darkdevil’, but this issue is where she officially, if accidentally, joins the superhero community and starts making connections. This is where she gets in with “the greatest heroes of her world.”

TWO

The Fantastic Five have never really been absent from this comic. Since DeFalco’s “Sixteen Years later…” world doesn’t want to speculate about what the Space Year Two Thousand and Twelve might be like, or to make explicit its shrewd choice that Nineteen Ninety-Eight is sixteen years on from Nineteen Ninety-Six, that creates a kind of cultural vacuum around its teenage characters. May’s ‘Girl Power’ t-shirt represents the limit of how directly they can allude to contemporary pop culture, but DeFalco’s reticent to fabricate a fictional pop culture for them to engage with instead. This comic wants its teenage cast to have posters of their favourite celebrities on their walls, but where is it to look for viable celebrities?

Knowing that the FF are celebrity superheroes, it has so far looked to them. And specifically to Franklin Richards, to whom the characters then look with starry eyes. Again there a whiff of vindicatory fantasy to what DeFalco’s doing here. Psi-Lord, the young adult Franklin he introduced in his Fantastic Four run, didn’t really work. But here’s a universe where Psi-Lord, another young adult Franklin, is considered to work so well that everyone’s utterly smitten with him. At one point May warns a villain that he’s risking the wrath of all women everywhere by attacking Franklin. So far the evidence on the page suggests that this is an objectively true fact about the MC2 universe. This world appears to have a universally desired heart-throb called Psi-Lord.

The status of the Fantastic Five as “the world’s most famous super-team” does not rest entirely on Franklin’s dishiness. They’ve a major public profile, with the first ten floors of the Fantastic Five Building given over to a museum of their exploits and the entire skyscraper thought of as a shrine. They’re a brand, and understood as such by the teenagers who identify with them and compare them against others. “I know that new Avengers team has been capturing the big headlines lately,” says May’s crush Brad, “But I’m strictly an FF man.”

May’s social group gives us an insight into how the FF brand works, because May’s social group is all over the place. Her personal high school drama, which the book has been contrasting with Peter’s from the start, arises from May being too popular. Her personality, prowess and interests make her appealing to a wide cross-section of broadly characterised nerds and jocks who all cluster around her with demands on her time and emotional labour. So when the Fantastic Five are mentioned in this group, we can get a good look at how the brand is read.

Nerdy Jimmy brings them up first in the context of something he’s read in the science section of the Bugle concerning their recent findings and May’s main girl Davida mocks him for this as a ‘geek’. Are the FF then a geek brand? Seems not, as the jocks then show up to enthuse about them as superheroes. So far we’ve got three vectors towards engagement with the Fantastic Five; Interest in Franklin Richards as a dreamboat, interest in them as scientists and interest in them as superheroes. The important thing about all of these is that none of them are based on the past. The attraction is towards who Franklin Richards is now, the scientific interest is in what they’ve recently discovered and the superhero fanboy discourse is about contrasting them with “that new Avengers team.” In the first of these articles we contrasted the marketing of the Two Thousand and Eight Iron Man film with that of the Marvel Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. Clearly the way the Fantastic Five are marketed within the MC2 universe is closer to how the Iron Man film was in ours. They are not a heritage brand.

Which makes the museum a curious place. Here’s what it has on display; Puppet Master stuff, Inhuman stuff, Wizard stuff, Namor stuff, Doctor Doom stuff, Willie Lumpkin stuff, Watcher stuff, Impossible Man stuff, Yancy Street stuff, Galactus stuff, Silver Surfer stuff, Red Ghost stuff and Agatha Harkness stuff. Not only is everything we see from the team’s past as the Fantastic Four but it’s all specifically from the Stan n’ Jack era. In fact, everything except for the huge display about Agatha Harkness represents something from the first half of the the Stan n’ Jack era. Do punters have a nice time at this museum, do you suppose? Are their expectations met by exhibits of which Agatha Harkness is the most contemporary? Are Franklin’s constituency satisfied by a wall-sized headshot of his old nanny?

I’m not sure. But on another level it all makes sense once the fighting starts. Once violence breaks out in the museum then what we have is May Parker struggling to make sense of her situation and keep herself safe whilst surrounded by re-purposed detritus of Marvel Silver Age. That’s a visual symbol of everything she’s been through so far. Finding out the truth about her father and her powers. Being evaluated by ‘Darkdevil’. So far May’s story has all been about her being confronted with the detritus of Marvel Silver Age and being challenged to work out what it all has to do with her. She knows it’s something. She’s learned that she’s not the person she thought she was and she learned that the reason for that has to do with an association between her and the detritus of Marvel’s Silver Age. Now she has to work out the details. She must ask how this iconography fits as a part of her and, thanks to the narratorial strategy, you are being asked how it fits as part of YOU.

May’s provisional solution to the problem has been to become Spider-Girl, but she’s really not sure about that. She has a lot of doubts about the identity on every level. Again and again she questions the name, coming back on multiple occasions to both ‘Spider-Woman’ and ‘Spider-Person’ as perhaps preferable.

She doesn’t yet know who she’s trying to be and doesn’t know why she’s trying to be it. The reason this issue gives for her secret life as Spider-Girl is that it’s to “continue the family tradition” but this issue is also very clear that this secret life is against her family’s wishes, unknown to her family, and driving a wedge between her and them. There is no conceivable way that May can possibly believe this is something she’s doing for her family. This is something she’s doing for herself as she figures herself out.

One exchange with Franklin makes her ambivalence very clear.

“I’ve got a hunch that there’s going to be a publicity maelstrom when the world hears about you!”

“Really?!” she says. “I’d rather keep a low profile.”

“Then why wear such a conspicuous costume?” he asks.

May’s stumped. She genuinely has been trying to conceal that there’s a new Spider-Person active in New York whilst dressed as a Spider-Person.  All this is a process of her trying to work out who she is and what face she wants to show the world, and she’s really not there yet.

Sadly for her, the most preferable option is not on the table. May Parker can’t be Bat-Person.

It’s easy to think that Batman is a darker story than Spider-Man if you mistake tone for content and colour scheme for narrative. It really isn’t. Bruce Wayne witnessed a tragedy for which he was not responsible and became Batman, a healing. Peter Parker witnessed a tragedy for which he was responsible and became Spider-Man, an open wound.

Being Batman is either good for Bruce or as good as it gets for Bruce. Being Spider-Man is not good for Peter, a man who is emotionally unsuited to being a superhero in just about every way but who has got it into his head that people will die if he isn’t one. Spider-Man is not okay. Spider-Man is a character who’s quipping constantly to push the panic down, whose tagline was once “New York’s Neurotic Super-Hero!” and whose signature power is literally weaponised anxiety. Being Batman is Bruce’s gift to himself. Being Spider-Man is Peter’s gift to the world. Being Spider-Man is not good for Peter. One of the things DeFalco has said the MC2 is there to do is to provide a happy ending for Peter. In the MC2, and in any plausible happy ending for Peter, Peter is not Spider-Man. While Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? has Bruce’s happy ending right; He gets to be Batman.

Bruce Wayne’s symbolic strategies for becoming his finest self have proved effective enough to replicate on an industrial scale. Scores of characters have interacted with the sign of the bat and the stories of almost all those characters, from Barbara Gordon to Steph Brown, from Brane Taylor to Bat Cow, from Tim Drake to Kate Kane, has been the story of them drawing on the potency of that brand, and the structure of the ‘Bat Family’ to work out who they are, to own that, and to excel at it. Not to become Batman or to please Batman, Kathy Kane made it clear from the start that neither of those things would be required, but to become themselves for themselves.

The sign of the bat is a tool for self-actualisation. The sign of the spider is a tool for self-sacrifice or self-negation.  

Dick Grayson, the first Robin, understands the contrast. His 2014 series Grayson saw him negate himself to infiltrate an intelligence agency called ‘Spyral.’ In the sixth issue he explained what this meant.

“The Flying Grayson. Nightwing. Robin. […] They were about inspiration, comfort, trust, family. I gave that up to become a spy. A spider man.”

i shall become a spider

Grayson #6

The bat is a place to grow. The spider is a place to hide. May Parker’s in trouble. She’s trying to build a bat out of spider parts.

THREE

This story is titled Fun ‘n’ Games with The Fantastic Five. Let’s meet these funsters.

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Franklin Richards does not seem to have gone Bieber under the strain of adulation. His main character traits seem to be curiosity, politeness, and clarity of thought. He seems a perfectly pleasant and well-adjusted young man and I’ve no idea how he squares that with going around calling himself ‘Psi-Lord.’ He is in the middle of growing out a mullet.

Lyja, the Skrull who was Alica in that retcon, is now going by ‘Ms Fantastic.’ That is not an obvious name to have taken. In DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run there was much agonising over whether or not she still counted as Johnny’s wife given that they only married because she was Alica in that retcon. Here though, they remain wed. We don’t get much insight into the relationship, which is a shame because I really want to know about the family dynamics that lead to her adopting and adapting her brother-in-law’s Action Name. However it came about, it is a very strong statement for Lyja the Skrull who was Alica in that retcon to now be the one who carries the team’s name within her own.

She obviously carries the name well. The Fantastic Five brand is thriving with her as Ms Fantastic. May even says that she had a poster of her on her wall when she was a kid. Which is interesting, because it’s said as if it’s the sort of thing one naturally grows out of. As if having a poster of one of the Fantastic Five on your wall is a thing of childhood. Yet we know that the MC2’s teenagers are super-into the FF and that May would be as happy to have a picture of Franklin up in her room as Jessica Jones was to have one of Johnny. Why is Lyja something that you grow out of? My theory is that she’s thought of as the kids’ favourite. She’s the green lady who turns into terrifying giant alien insects. I think children love her. I think children love her because they think she’s creepy, gross and cool and, since old people don’t recognise her as a classic member of the team, they get to claim her as theirs. 

Big Brain is Reed Richards’ brain inside a little flying robot.

John Storm is the leader of the team. Not Johnny. John. He’s the leader now. John Storm. We see John Storm  give one order. It is met with “I’m way ahead of you, Johnny!” from Reed. All other orders are given by Reed. They include “Back off, Johnny!” to a hot-headed Human Torch who is impetuously rushing into combat.   

Ben’s here too. There feels something vaguely sour about him. I hope he’s okay. We only get one of his catchphrases, and that’s from the narrator, and his violence against May seems to go beyond the established bounds of the misunderstanding-fuelled superhero punch-up and to continue past the point where everyone else is sorting things out. He has metal bits. On the cover these include one of his thighs, but inside the comic they’re all on his upper body, so perhaps they’re clearing up.

Much about the balance of the team is implied in a conversation between Franklin and May regarding an astonishing claim made by the antagonist regarding the nature of reality.

“I suppose it’s possible,” says Franklin, “My dad gives him the benefit of the doubt. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Lyja don’t care. And Uncle Ben…well…let’s just say he thinks the guy’s full of it!”

Ascertaining the truth of the claim is of no interest to two of the five, and one remains openly hostile to inquiry. Three of the Fantastic Five, including the leader, can’t be bothered with doing science. But the Fantastic Five remain scientific adventures and continue to make headlines as such. The surface level agenda of the team remains Reed’s.

FOUR

I’ve never read an issue of Spider-Gwen that lived up to her first appearance in Edge of Spider-Verse. My suspicion is that there isn’t one. My further suspicion is that that’s because that first appearance was the only time she was ever on the edge of the Spider-Verse.

The distinction between ‘street level’ and ‘cosmic’ superheroes is kind of a dodgy one most tightly cleaved to by people up to something really tedious like trying to objectively prove who could beat up who or trying to insist that the Punisher can’t be a Frankenstein. It’s a nonsense. You can say more about the soul in a Daredevil comic than you can in Doctor Strange. Darkseid is a Jimmy Olsen villain. All superheroes are cosmic. Have them fight God.

But there are some ways in which ‘the cosmic’ can hobble the telling of a ‘street-level’ superhero story, and that is to do with how they frame the space where the story is told.

Back when you had a Lyja poster on your wall, you were probably told at least two versions of ‘The Three Little Pigs.’ The version where the wolf meets its end immediately after the assault on house three, and the version where they go to the fair afterwards. Your response was probably to process them as two different tellings of the story, rather than to hypothesise the existence of a multiverse in which both were true. They share a space in that they both go in the box labelled ‘versions of The Three Little Pigs’, but they don’t demand that you imagine a fictional space called ‘The Three Little Pigs Multiverse’ which houses both narratives as stable and persistent accounts of events.

Wikipedia’s pages on Disney comics are often an incredible mess of wrongness. The influence of how superhero comics are discussed on how all comics are discussed, and the weight accorded to Don Rosa’s wonderfully cranky and completely atypical work, means that the doings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are talked about in terms of ‘continuities’ and ‘universes.’ Universes! What a word! What a concept to apply! As if there’s a fictional cosmology needed to explain why different sorts of things happen in Italian Duck comics and Scandinavian ones rather than it just being a matter of different traditions.

It is incredible how much the language of science-fiction has been absorbed into how we account for differences in stories. Duckberg contains no ostriches according to Carl Barks’ The Tuckered Tiger. Donald has a pet ostrich in the Al Taliaferro newspaper strips. This discrepancy does not constitute proof that the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics holds true in either fiction. It does not make those stories into universes.

When Marvel launched its ‘Ultimate’ line it knew that it was important for that retelling of its material, that version of its Three Little Pigs, to be understood as a retelling and not as something sharing a fictional space with the existing material. That would eventually change, but early on the point was stressed that the Ultimate books did not share a ‘multiverse’ with the stories they retold and would not be interacting with the Marvel universe. They were a different version of the story, not part of the story of a shared cosmology.

Spider-Gwen was awesome because she was a version of the Spider story in which Gwen was the Spider-Person and Peter the beautiful corpse. She got to be that for most of one issue, and then she crossed the edge of the Spider-Verse. Thereafter she was the Spider-Woman of Earth-65. It couldn’t be helped, given the circumstances of her creation, but her interaction with the multiverse came disastrously early for the character. It robbed her of her right to establish herself as a version of the story and instead established her as something that only makes sense as a component of a structure that houses her alongside the original.

Officially, all the different DC ‘universes’ we saw in between Crisis on Infinite Earths’ destruction of the DC multiverse and its vague and creeping reintroduction in the early Two Thousands weren’t universes at all. They were simply versions, simply stories. There was no shared fictional cosmology for them to abide within. Conversely, all the Marvel ‘universes’ that we saw in What If?  were absolutely officially components of a Marvel multiverse. There were out there somewhere. The Watcher told us so. In practise however it was hard to read them like that. They didn’t often look like worlds. They looked like thought experiments.

Three issues on from spinning-off out of What If?  then Spider-Girl  has to decide what it is, or at least how it presents itself. It is officially a part of the Marvel multiverse, but how much does that matter to the story? To what extent is this book telling the story of Spider-Girl and to what extent is it telling the story of the Spider-Girl of Earth-982? What’s the stage on which this is set? Does it go with the strategy that the Ultimate universe will or the strategy that circumstance foisted on Spider-Gwen?

This is a world where Mary Jane kept her daughter. How much does the world where she didn’t matter to this story?

DeFalco has thought about this very carefully. Maybe not with reference to Spider-Gwen and the Ultimate universe, since they haven’t happened yet, and possibly even without reference to Donald Duck’s pet ostrich, but he’s identified all the dangers anyway.

One of the functions of this issue is to introduce the Multiverse but also to create a buffer between it and May’s story. The Fantastic Five form part of that buffer. Huge structures of multiple worlds are their turf, not May’s, and her involvement with it is a consequence of her interaction with them. This has long been one of the things that the FF are for for regard to ‘street level’ characters; Providing a bridge between them and big science-fiction. The FF are what you invoke when you want a reason for Daredevil to be on a space rocket.

Another way that May’s story is shielded from the multiverse is by scepticism. That other universes exist is only asserted here by the story’s villain. He says he’s from one. Franklin supposes it’s possible, Reed gives him the benefit of the doubt, Johnny and Lyja don’t care, and Ben thinks he’s a gobshite. Based purely on what’s presented in this issue, the existence of a multiverse is completely doubtable.

The third buffer, and I think this is the cleverest and most delicate, is that DeFalco never confirms which universe our antagonist is from. He wants the fun of being able to compare the Fantastic Five to the Fantastic Four, but does so in such a fuzzy way that there’s nothing to say that he’s talking about the main Marvel universe. The world where Mary Jane lost her daughter is not introduced into the the story of the world where she did not.

We know very little about the villain or the world he’s trying to get back to. His aged appearance imply that he’s been away for some time.  What families and comforts has he left behind? He’s got very little apparent personality, very little self. His name’s Spyral.   

Have Them Fight God: Spider-Girl’s Slamming Heat

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. I have my reasons.

Today it’s…

What If? #105

…from February 1998. A comic in which they appear on a screen in the background for one panel. Oh, and it’s not, strictly speaking, even the Fantastic Four. It’s the Fantastic Five.But there’s no point doing this sort of thing if you’re not meticulously thorough.

Script, Plot and Pencils by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. Finishes by Bill Sienkewicz though there’s only a couple of pages where you really get the benefit. Letters by Chris Eliopoulos & Virtual Calligraphy. Colours by Matt Webb.

ONE

It is hard to talk about What If? #105 without also talking about Spider-Girl #0. Mostly because they’re the same comic. Nine months after its release, this issue was re-branded and re-released as the launch of a new imprint and of a new ongoing universe. A universe that then chugs along in fits and starts for the next seventeen years. MC2. Marvel Comics Two.

So this issue has been two things; The comic it was published as and the comic it was repurposed into being. Which is intriguing, because it reads a lot more like the comic it was repurposed into being than it does the comic it was published as. Everything in What If? #105 makes more sense when it stops being What If? #105.

covers

This, the second volume of What If?, was already in a peculiar place in its final year. The initial Nineteen Seventy-Seven to ‘Eighty-Four volume had established that the business of the title was the business of its title. Each issue was to present something which had not happened in the main Marvel continuity and to spend its page count exploring how things might have turned out with that variable altered. What if the Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four had married the Sub-Mariner? What if Spider-Man had never become a crime fighter? What if Phoenix had not died? That sort of thing. This second volume, starting in Nineteen Eighty-Nine, continued in this vein. What if Spider-Man had Married Black Cat? What if the Trial of Galactus had ended in Reed Richards’ execution? What if the Punisher’s family hadn’t been killed?

These were the kind of questions to which the book both demanded and promised answers. Although readers knew that in most cases the answer would probably be “Everything turned out awful.” There was always something weirdly defensive about What If’s certainty that most divergences from established events would lead to ruin.  

“Oh, you think it might be nice if Mar-Vell hadn’t died of cancer, do you?” it goes. “Well, we’ll tell you what would have happened if Mar-Vell hadn’t died of cancer. It would have turned into magic contagious cancer and then thousands would have died. Is that nice? Is that what you want? Is it? No? Then let us do our jobs.”

What If often feels like it’s exploiting a misunderstanding about the nature of fiction to indirectly contend that those pulling the levers of the Great Marvel Machine have made the tough choices they had to to keep everyone safe. For all that the title gestures at possibility, What If is typically an agent of narrative conservatism, an advocate for The Way Things Are. It’s the barrel of ‘Stick With Your Wife’ fortune cookies from The Simpsons.      

But, even if readers might guess at the answer, the appeal of the book was still in the question. A question the book had perversely stopped putting on the covers in the middle of Nineteen Ninety-Six. #86 was What If The Scarlet Spider Had Killed Spider-Man? and then #87 was just What If …Starring Sabretooth with no indication of what that ellipsis hid. Functionally it can only be ‘What If You Wanted To Buy A Comic Starring Sabretooth?’ because you had nothing else to go on.

By the time the comic we’re talking about today comes along then we’re on the other side of #100 (What if…Starring Gambit/What if You Wanted To Buy A Comic Starring Gambit?), a milestone whose cover gave no indication of what possible deviation from Gambit’s storied history we might be exploring to mark the momentous occasion. Asking the question ‘What If?’ was no longer how this comic was being sold, but was still how it was being told. The selling point had changed (to a vague shrug) but the structure remained the same. The issues either side of #105 might just proffer themselves as What If…Starring Silver Surfer and What If…Starring chuffing Gambit AGAIN  but inside they’re doing ‘What If the Impossible Man Obtained the Infinity Gauntlet?’ and ‘What if the X-Men Condemned Gambit to Death?’ They were still typical issues of What If?   

What if #105, the comic that would be Spider-Girl #0, was not.

Part of the reason for that was the point at which it deviates from continuity. The Spider-Man books’ ‘Clone Saga’ was the way it was because of constantly shifting choices at every level as to what the Clone Saga was supposed to be about and what it was supposed to be for. At one point one of the things it was supposed to achieve was the retirement of Peter Parker, and at one point it was not. At one point Peter and Mary Jane were supposed to have a child, and at one point they were not. Unfortunately, at the point they were not then Mary-Jane had been established as being pregnant.

This was a problem. Peter Parker becoming a father was a move chosen to age the character, to allow him to mature in his life and move on to other things and step aside for a younger generation of Spider-Man. If Peter Parker wasn’t to be aged then he couldn’t become a parent, but there was no easy way out. To write Mary Jane as having miscarried also ages the characters. Superheroes’ ages have nothing to do with how long they’ve been in publication and everything to do with what life events they’re considered to have been through and how old they consequently feel. For ‘lost a child to miscarriage’ to be a thing that the Sensational Spider-Man has been through adds years to the character’s perceived age.

The child could not be born and also couldn’t not be born. That’s the truth that was floating around the room when Marvel arrived at a decision that solved absolutely nothing and made everything worse. You can imagine why it happened. Somewhere in the fog of debate someone must have lost track of why the child could not be born and why they couldn’t also not be born. Why that was true must have been forgotten and what must have become important was to find a way, any way, that the child could be born and not born. Solving that problem was mistaken for solving the deeper narrative problem from which it arose.

So, in Amazing Spider-Man #418, Mary Jane is led to believe she has miscarried, while in fact the newborn baby is smuggled out of the hospital and handed over to Norman Osborn. Peter and Mary Jane continue under the delusion that the child has died, while in fact she’s been trafficked abroad into a sinister but unspecified situation by the Green bloody Goblin. It’s absolutely the stuff of nightmares. What we’re given to take away as the answer to the question, “Does Spider-Man have a child?” is “Yeah, but he thinks she’s dead. She’s not anywhere good, tbh, so that’s probably kinder. Best not think about it.”  That scab will be lightly picked at through ‘Ninety-Seven and ‘Ninety-Eight before Marvel eventually just decide to have Osborn declare the baby dead and move briskly on.  

 What If #105 is basically What if…Okay, Yeah…What If Anything Except That? Jesus Christ! though this is phrased as What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby, And Spider-Man Had Had A Spider-Girl?

What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby, And Spider-Man Had Had A Spider-Girl? is a tellingly inelegant question. It’s still obscuring how things then stood continuity. What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby? Well, she didn’t really, did she? Not in the way that phrase suggests. Her baby was stolen and handed over to an abuser. But even when being presented with a universe in which that didn’t happen, we’re still discouraged from thinking about the universe where it did.

One thing that makes this an atypical issue of What If? is that there can be no pretence that those pulling the levers of the Great Marvel Machine knew what they were doing when they made the original choice. We can’t head into this comic imagining that a steady hand was previously on the tiller but now we drift precariously into dangerous waters.  The weirdly written blurb on the intro page contrasts the certainties of the Marvel Universe with the jeopardy of What If? -“We experience a ray of hope knowing that Marvel heroes will ultimately triumph over Marvel villains but […] What if we shed a little light on the dark side of the Marvel Universe?!” We know that’s not what’s going to happen here. This can only be fix fic.

The other interesting thing about the awkwardness of What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby, And Spider-Man Had Had A Spider-Girl? is that it exposes the supplemental action this story is performing. We might have thought it sufficient to ask What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby? and to then reveal Spider-Man having a Spider-Girl as a consequence. But no, this comic is not playing the What If? game of pretending its events are all necessary consequences of the premise.  We are not pretending that we’re changing one variable on the Great Marvel Machine and then reading off the results of that butterfly flap. This comic is open about the fact that it’s not changing a system but inventing fictions. It’s adding things. It’s making stuff up.

That would be hard for it to conceal, really, as what it’s making up is a new and entirely viable continuity. We’re introduced to a universe here that, next time we see it, will be an imprint. We meet Spider-Girl, who’ll get her own title in October of Ninety-Eight. We meet a new generation of the Avengers who’ll get their own title in October of Ninety-Eight. We meet the son of the Juggernaut who’ll get his own title in October of Ninety-Eight. We meet the Fantastic Five too, but they won’t get their own title until October of Ninety-Nine since they’re not so obvious a concept as the son of the Juggernaut.

The gang’s all here and all introduced by a structure that seems built for the specific purpose of introducing them.  This isn’t what you get when you ask What if Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby? This is what you get when you sit down to write a book about a second generation of Marvel heroes.

“Well, that’s probably what happened then, isn’t it?” You’re probably thinking, “The 2099 imprint was just wrapping up and there was a gap in the market for a Marvel World of Tomorrow, especially with that DC World of Tomorrow having been such a big hit. This was always a stealth pilot, surely? Look at the cover! It says ‘THE NEXT GENERATION OF SPIDEY EXCITEMENT STARTS HERE!!!’ not ‘THE NEXT GENERATION OF SPIDEY EXCITEMENT STARTS AND ENDS HERE!!!’ This was always really Spider-Girl #0 or my name’s not Hypothetical Reader.”  

Fair enough. But Tom DeFalco’s always been very clear in interviews that that’s not what happened at all. Back in Two Thousand, Jenifer M. Contino of Sequential Tart asked him how he got the idea for the MC2. “I didn’t,” he replied, “I just got the idea for the first Spider-Girl story which I thought would be a one-shot in What If.” 

His story has remained consistent and plausible right up to the interview cycle for Secret Wars IVThis really was just a one-shot issue of What If.  The reason it doesn’t look like one, the reason it’s so excessively inventive and additive, is simple. The creators just got massively into it.

Having things turn out better for Peter and Mary Jane really mattered to DeFalco. He’d spent those trying times working down the Clone Saga mines  daydreaming of the bright sun above ground.  The opportunity to construct a world full of new and redesigned superheroes really excited Frenz. He’s a superhero artist. They developed incidents and sketched characters massively in excess of what was was required because they were excited by what they were creating. That’s one of the reasons this comic seems so startling to me as a reader. I know DeFalco mostly from his confused and compromised Fantastic Four run, which never gave me a sense that its writer was fired up with passion and pride for the material he was producing. There’s one story in that run that’s there to literally apologise for the previous story.  This DeFalco, running on the joy of invention, is new to me.

Though it would be overly romantic to suggest that all this imaginative industriousness necessitated the continuation of the material.

“The fans are the ones who should get the credit for coming up with the MC2 universe!” DeFalco further told Contino. That’s a bit much. There was not such a strong response to the Son of the Juggernaut standing around in the background of one panel that Marvel were compelled to give him his own title nine months later. No, what happened is that Marvel were looking to create a new imprint to put into Kmart and Target at the same time as DeFalco and Frenz happened to cook up all this content that would be suited to such a venture. That’s the confluence of timing and commerce that turned What If #105 into Spider-Girl #0.

But why What If #105 reads like Spider-Girl #0, that’s all down to the enthusiasm of its creators. As the longevity of these characters would show, that enthusiasm was catching.    

TWO

freaky

One of the soundest decisions this comic makes, and one that can’t have hurt the MC2’s enduring viability, has to do with how it constructs a future. What does the Marvel Universe look like fifteen years on from Nineteen Ninety-Six? It looks like Nineteen Ninety-Eight.

We’re in a generic Nineties Marvel world of fashion, furniture and culture. With huge Nineties mobile phones. The 2099 line had been predicated on the idea that, in order to thrive,  futuristic Marvel heroes needed to be properly housed in a vivarium of sci-fi slang and flying cars. The MC2 line looks like it’ll be having none of that.

It’s interested in what it means for fifteen years to have passed for Foggy Nelson and Jubilee, but not for the world that provides their backdrop. A future Marvel Universe is on offer here but not a future America. and that keeps everything focused on what you probably want from this comic rather than on invention outside its scope. As I go forward with reading the MC2 I’ll be really surprised if this one choice doesn’t come to look like a major reason for its success. The Damian Wayne Batman would be a more easily exploitable character if he didn’t come bound with the highly specific future which he does.

The only cultural whiff of the alien comes from some of the dialogue, but that’s all down to the well-documented linguistic strangeness of the Nineties and the well-documented strangenesses that occur when middle-aged men write teenage girls.

My favourite line is “What’s the word, Girly Girl?” but I think DeFalco’s must be “feeling loose and slamming heat!” It appears twice, accompanying both of May’s major triumphs and bookending the story.   

THREE

This is a Fantastic Four project, so our particular interest in the MC2 is with its alternate future version of the team, the Fantastic Five. They appear here, but only as an image on a screen. So it’s worthwhile to see what we can learn about this FF from that brief appearance.

For starters we can tell something about their relationship to Peter. Or at least about Peter’s relationship to Johnny. Missing a leg and thirteen years out of the superhero game, Peter believes he’s going to have to fight a new Green Goblin who’s out to kill him. His first course of action is to seek out Johnny. Not the Fantastic Five as a group and not the Human Torch as a massively powerful superhero who can just step in and solve this problem for him. No. Peter wants Johnny to back him up while he confronts the Goblin, to be by his side as he makes what he must imagine to be his last stand.

Yes. Good.

But while we might reasonably infer that some strength of feeling has persisted between Peter and Johnny, we also learn that that doesn’t seem to have translated to them keeping in touch. Peter is unaware of Johnny’s comings and goings and has not visited the FF in some time. Their regular social association doesn’t seem to have survived Peter getting out of the superhero game.

We can pick up a few details about the MC2 FF from Peter’s visit. We can look at where he’s visiting, for one thing. Although I’m afraid to say that this is not an area washed over by Frenz and DeFalco’s wave of inventive enthusiasm. It is called ‘Fantastic Five Headquarters.’

Fantastic Five Headquarters is a big white skyscrapper just like Four Freedoms Plaza except with ‘5’s all around the top rather than ‘4’s. This probably explains why it got stuck with a rubbish name. Nobody could be bothered to look back over the 1941 Roosevelt speech from which the four freedoms originate to find a fifth principle. Shame. There is, for example, plenty that they could have lifted out of his list of requirements for a just economic system. I like “Four Freedoms And Also The Ending of Special Privilege For the Few Plaza” but maybe the most FF-sh would be “Four Freedoms And Also The Enjoyment of the Fruits of Scientific Progress in a Wider and Constantly Rising Standard of Living Plaza.”

I am just not happy about this tower.It is ill-conceived. Sticking giant ‘5’s where the ‘4’s were solves nothing because there are still four sides. Four ‘4’s is pleasing. Four ‘5’s is rubbish. Unless they’ve put an extra ‘5’ on the roof. I take it all back if they did.

Whatever it looks like and whatever it is called, Fantastic Five Headquarters tells us something about the status quo of the team. Which is to say that it is indeed their usual status quo; the FF operate publicly out of a big building in New York. Everyone knows who they are, what they’re up to and where to find them. They are also, to some extent, publicly accessible. Roberta, the robot receptionist from the John Byrne era, is at the desk. They remain the sort of super team who have a receptionist and, as Peter discovers, the sort who need one because they’re usually away in space.

So far they seem to be a symbol of stability within the MC2 universe. They’re in the same sort of place they’re usually in, doing the same sort of thing they usually do, with the same ancillary staff. How much does that change when we see the actual line up? How much of what the Fantastic Five signify is changed by who the Fantastic Five actually are?

Johnny is on the team! We can’t tell much about him other than that he’s looking a little broader, a little more filled out. Presumably, fifteen years on, his role is no longer ‘The Youth.’ So what is it? He looks confident, relaxed and authoritative in the foreground of the image. Is Johnny the leader now?

Ben is on the team! With a metal shoulder. Possibly a metal arm extending from it too. We can’t see it, but I feel like there’s one there. This is interesting. Ben + Metal Bits was a visual symbol of DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run because Ben spent a fair chunk of it with a bucket on his head.  Giving Ben a metal shoulder (and probably arm) seems like an interesting way of affirming that aesthetic without repeating it. The bucket is off the head but the DeFalco approved way to introduce visual variation to Ben Grimm is still to stick metal bits on him.

Lyja is on the team! Equally evocative of DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run as Ben’s bucket, although with less personality, Lyja’s the product of one of its earliest controversies. She is the Skrull who was invented to retcon away Johnny’s marriage to Alicia and who we’re retroactively asked to imagine was the ‘Alicia’ we saw all though the John Byrne era. As someone created for the sole purpose of undoing years of character development for Johnny, Ben and Alicia then it’s easy to see her as an icon of the gravitational pull that always drags the Fantastic Four back to something as close to their Silver Age set-up as possible. DeFalco was determined for her to not be just that, however, and so kept her around and did weird stuff with her. Now here she is, fifteen years of story time later, as part of the Fantastic Five. A character who most naturally represents the FF’s resistance to change put forward to show how the FF have changed.

A nondescript blond man is on the team! I’m going to assume this is an adult Franklin. Adult Franklins of the time-displaced variety caused all sorts of fun and games in DeFalco’s Fantastic Four. If there’s a ‘Franklin Problem’, like many writers believe there is, then DeFalco’s preferred solution to it has always been to age him up. It will be interesting to see what he does with a Franklin who arrives at adulthood via the conventional procession of years rather than by being abducted into the timestream by a grandfather who’s trying to stop him marrying into the Summers family.    

A Herbie Robot with a pink blob for a face is on the team! Not sure if the pink blob is a rose or a brain. Also not sure how this robot identifies, but I’m going to be pessimistic and suspect that the move from four to five members has not brought this team any closer to gender parity.

BRAINROSE

So, other than the unremarkable Johnny and the unreadable Brain/Rose/Robot then everything we’ve got here sends a very loud message. Lyja. Adult Franklin. Metal Bits.  It couldn’t be clearer if Sue’s weird costume with the ‘4’ cut out of the chest was hanging up behind them. The What If? Posed by the Fantastic Five is ‘What if the DeFalco run never ended?’ What if that five year run continued unseen for another fifteen years?

That gravitational pull towards the Silver Age team that often exerts itself on the Fantastic Four can do so in harshly punctuated bursts. The weirdest instance of that punctuation was the descent of the Englehart run into nightmare logic and embittered metafiction as its attempts to tell a generational story dissolved around it. The most violent instance of that punctuation was Heroes Reborn washing the DeFalco run away. The Fantastic Five look like a team immune to that gravity and to those punctuational moments of catastrophe.      

And, appropriately, for a team left to grow and change slowly and organically, they’re a generational blend. Ben and Johnny, junior members of the team now elder statesmen. Lyja, someone brought in through changing relationships. Franklin, a second generation.  I’m sure the robot fits in with this somehow. But it’s interesting to see how starkly this is contrasted with the other superteam we see, the MC2’s Avengers. There’s no blending there. The Avengers we meet here are an entirely new generation of grown-up teen characters previously unassociated with the Avengers. Like Jubilee, the Son of the Juggernaut and Speedball. There, one generation has passed cleanly to the next. The FF have been spared from the acts of punctuation that pull them backwards and the Avengers subjected to an act of punctuation that has pushed them forward.

FOUR

This volume of What If? is very quick to tell us when it has a Gambit story to tell, but it’s a little cagier about who this issue is about. According to the original cover, this comic stars “Spider-Man?”

Do the contents resolve the cover’s question? Is this a story about Peter or May? Both go on journeys in the issue and neither is trivial. May becomes Spider-Girl and Peter ends up with a gun and the intention of killing the child of a man he loves. It’s a busy day for everyone.

The plot is straightforward. Mary Jane and Peter have concealed their spidery past from their teenage daughter, May. May begins to manifest spidery powers. Normie Osborn (Harry’s son) coincidentally commences his career as the Green Goblin a couple of hours later. May learns the truth about her parents’ spidery past. Peter goes on a tour of the MC2 universe to see if anyone can help with the Goblin thing. Nobody can, so Peter turns up to meet Normie with a gun. Normie makes a nob joke. May turns up as Spider-Girl to save us all.

What’s complicated is the perspective. How point of view works in this issue is truly remarkable. Peter’s unquestionably the viewpoint character. He’s watching the opening scene with an understanding that May lacks and the reader shares. He’s our tour guide to this universe. May’s decision to become Spider-Girl happens off panel so that we can follow Peter and share in his surprise when Spider-Girl shows up. That last one’s the most telling. This is a story about someone deciding to become Spider-Girl in which we’re not granted access to that decision in order to keep us locked on Peter’s viewpoint and to share in his reaction when he learns of it.

That’s not truly remarkable though, is it? That just means that this is a story about Peter Parker watching his daughter become Spider-Girl. Okay, yeah. But, given that, consider that is issue is narrated in the second person, with YOU being May.

“And that’s when you begin to feel it! A strange, tingling sensation in the back of your skull — [..] Nothing can stop you now! You’re in your zone — […] Your name is May “Mayday” Parker and today is the first day of the rest of your life!”

This is compromised a little by one solitary page that’s narrated by Peter in the first person, but that’s entirely compartmentalized. Peter is explicitly not ‘I’ at the same time as May is ‘You.’   And May is consistently ‘You.’

It is you who are feeling like you accidentally stumbled into someone else’s nightmare. It is you who are feeling loose and slamming heat! But, even if you always wanted to hear about yourself in a comic, don’t be too pleased. This is not a story about you. This is a story about Peter Parker watching you become Spider-Girl.

“You want a Spider-Person, Normie?” you ask as you first appear in costume, “Face it, tiger — You just hit the JACKPOT!”

“The familiar words spring from your mouth in a nervous rush,” the narrator tells you. “They’re words you learned on your mother’s knee.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this comic over the last two days. Most of it has been trying to imagine that conversation.

Have Them Fight God: Port of Entry

“Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.
Yeats, The Four Ages of Man.

“Have them fight God.”
Lee to Kirby, apocryphal.

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.

Like many of you who’ll be reading this, and any of you who didn’t blink at that last sentence, I’ve a tendency to form abnormally strong attachments to the media in which I invest. Sometimes that’s worked out well for me, sometimes it’s worked out less so. You know how it goes.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed many of those attachments breaking. The UK version of Big Brother filled my heart and mind for fourteen summers and then it didn’t. Doctor Who was the central mythology of my life for over thirty years and then it wasn’t. There exists no critical/medical consensus on whether Big Brother and Doctor Who went a bit rubbish or whether this might have had something to do with me trying depression on for size, but that doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that they were gone.

They were gone and, surprisingly, that was fine. These weren’t bitter, acrimonious break-ups like we all had with Pretty Little Liars. They were just gone. Doctor Who and Big Brother UK, these unmanageably massive and unfathomably strange texts that had occupied so much of my thought and my time for so long had just packed up and left in the night. I felt a bit melancholy about losing them but supposed I had no real regrets. I didn’t feel that I’d wasted thirty-one years on Doctor Who or fourteen years on BBUK. As I say, it wasn’t like with Pretty Little Liars.

But, as I stared out of the window listening to ‘Days’ by the Kinks and watching Doctor Who and Big Brother UK load their luggage into a taxi, I realised that perhaps I did have a regret. Perhaps it would have been nice if, instead of them just leaving, we could have talked things out properly first. Wound things up nicely. Worked out what we meant to each other. Consciously uncoupled.

So here I am now in the same situation with superheroes. Again, there’s no acrimony here. I didn’t wake up one morning and think, “Wait a minute! These are all fundamentally authoritarian power fantasies and any attempt to use them in progressive narratives will always be either disingenuous or naïve! Fiddlesticks!” No, no. None of that. Superheroes mean all sorts of different things and will continue to do so. I’m just done following the ongoing narratives and metanarrative of the superfolk as go about their cultural business. But this isn’t going to go like how it did with Doctor Who and BBUK. Superheroes and me are going to do this properly. We’re sitting down and having the talk.

That conversation is taking the form of the project presented to you here; Have Them Fight God. In which I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.

Why the Fantastic Four? There are a couple of reasons. One of which is that, when I first started reading superhero comics with Secret Wars then the FF felt to me like the heart of the story and, when I stopped reading superhero comics thirty years later with Secret Wars then they were indisputably the heart. They’ve not always been the centre of my attention or my enthusiasm as I’ve gone along, sometimes they have but not always, but if the story of my investment in superheroes can be mapped onto any set of characters then it’s them. It’s only through these plucky Imaginauts that I’ve got any chance of understanding the journey I’ve been on, of getting the number of the genre that just hit me. The other reason is that there are too many Superman comics.

I’m worried that I haven’t made this sound much fun! Break-up metaphors! Depression mentions! You must think you’re in for a right load of gloomy old grumbles. Don’t worry. It won’t be that at all. It’ll be a hoot! This project might not be explanatory (I’m writing from a position of inquiry rather than expertise) and it won’t always be celebratory, but it will be relentlessly exploratory. Exploration’s fun, isn’t it? To anticipate and misquote a phrase that will become important as we go along; It’s a human adventure.

Best get on with it then. Every Fantastic Four comic. Four thoughts on each.

Today that means…

MARVEL SUPER HERO ISLAND ADVENTURES #1

…from April 1999, a comic which encourages visitors to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park to lend a helping hand in bringing about the utter destruction of the Fantastic Four.

Written by Michael Stewart. Inked by Richard Case. Coloured by Paul Mounts. We’ll get to the penciller in a minute.

ONE

By the start of 2009, Marvel Entertainment would be the world’s fourth largest licensor. For that very reason, it would end 2009 having been bought by the world’s first largest licensor. The real world monetary value of all the characters discussed in this project eventually comes to derive not from companies producing fictions about those characters but on companies selling licenses to other companies, granting them the right to make shoes, duvet covers, milkshakes and tins of spaghetti shapes. For some time Disney have made more money from selling licenses than they have from making films. That’s their model, and those are the sums that caused them to decide Marvel was worth $4 billion.

Ten years earlier, when this comic came out, Marvel was not worth $4bn. But it was two years out of bankruptcy, it was under in the control of Ike Perlmutter, and it already had Avi Arad pushing for the strategies that would one day bait the mouse.

So this little book, a tie-in to the deal that let Universal have a Marvel Island at their newly-opened ‘Islands of Adventure’ theme park, is a valuable artifact. Marvel’s final destiny was as a licensing company. This lets us have a look at what sort of brand they thought they were selling at the start of the process which took them there.

Marvel_Super_Hero_Island_Adventures_Vol_1_1The most self-evident thing, when you first pick up the comic, is that this is a heritage brand. Over in publishing the Quesada/Jemas project to modernize the line has just begun. Kevin Smith’s Daredevil and Paul Jenkins’ Inhumans are under way. You wouldn’t know. That’s not yet anywhere to be seen on the face that Marvel is showing to the world outside the direct market. In 1999 the Quesada/Jemas Project is still an experiment rather than a direction. The Marvel Brand that has been sold to Universal is one that purports to be exciting because it is nostalgic.

Its cover assures us that the three exclusive stories within are “all told in the Mighty Marvel Manner.” What an amazing bit of copy. What a decision. What’ll speak to theme park goers in 1999? I know! One of Stan’s old cornball phrases! Imagine if “Told in the Mighty Marvel Manner!” had been the tagline for the 2008 Iron Man film.

Actually, yes, imagine just that. Because that highlights perfectly the difference between the brand that Marvel sells now and the brand it was selling in 1999. Modern Marvel films assert that they’re worthy of your time because of a present and immediate relevance to our contemporary world.

Whenever tendrils of that strategy reach Alan Moore’s cave they drive him to such fury that he emerges to complain about our cultural fixation on characters from the sixties. In every interview he makes that point, and every time the comics-reading audience responds with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but mate – aren’t your comics all about characters from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Enid Blyton’s Noddy Mythos?”

The comics-reading audience is missing what Moore finds so provocative. It’s the way our culture processes these sixties’ characters; a way that actively discourages us from thinking about the fact that they’re sixties characters. The modern Marvel brand does not invite us to retain a consciousness of these ideas being old ideas. It invites us to treat them as the Now and to thrill to them accordingly.

Now, I’m not saying that Alan Moore would have a grumble-free day out at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. I’m just saying that what’s happening in this comic is at an opposite extreme to one of his frequent complaints. Here we’re being invited to value this stuff precisely because it is the past. Because it’s part of American heritage and part of childhood.

The comic opens with an intro from Stan Lee. He uses the phrases ‘true believers’ and ‘rollicking readers’ and signs off with ‘Excelsior!’, all of which are exactly what’s wanted from him.

He also misleadingly implies that he’s had some editorial involvement in this comic. A lot of things change. A lot of things don’t.

TWO

There are three stories in this comic. One starring Doctor Doom, one starring Spider-Man, and one starring the Hulk. If we’re looking for answers to the question, “What do licensees want from the Fantastic Four?” then we’ve got a pretty big clue right there.

“What do licensees want from the Fantastic Four?”

“Not them.”

That broadly seems to be the case today. Conversations about how Marvel no longer hold the film rights to the Fantastic Four turn very quickly into lists of other properties first introduced in FF comics that are therefore denied them. The great annoyance for a lot of people is not that Marvel’s First Family have no place in the most successful version of the Marvel Universe, but that the Fantastic Four can’t be asset stripped.

Sue, Johnny, Reed and Ben are not, in the licensing game, particularly important parts of the Fantastic Four package. We’ve seen the extremes of this over the last couple of years in behaviour from both Fox and Perlmutter. Fox have been perfectly happy to devalue the Fantastic Four as a brand precisely because they’ve no sincere interest in exploiting that brand; just in retaining a cluster of IP that Marvel wants. While Perlmutter’s been happy to stop licensing Fantastic Four merchandise altogether as a move in that game.

Sue, Johnny, Reed and Ben are in this comic though. Doom is what’s wanted, as branding for a ride called ‘Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall’, but the FF are present as motivation for him to have built such an attraction.

What does Doom want? To utterly destroy the Fantastic Four.

How will Doom get it? By building a theme park ride.

We’ll see plenty of stories from Doom’s perspective as Have Them Fight God trundles along, but what does it mean for this particular one to be a Doctor Doom story that features the Fantastic Four?

Not terribly much, to be honest. Because the figure the story’s really structured around is YOU. It’s an eight page build to the reveal of where you, the reader, fit into the story and what your role in events is to be.

We open with a page of Doom addressing some random civilians who he’s holding captive in order to harvest their fear and turn it into lasers or something. “Together,” he tells them, “we shall teach the Fantastic Four that they have nothing to fear but… Fear Itself!”

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Then we get a couple of pages of a standard superhero punch-up, which Doom loses due to the apparently unforeseen circumstance of Johnny being able to shoot fire. Don’t worry, though. It was just a remotely controlled robot.

The real Doom is “elsewhere” (Universal Islands of Adventure) working on another machine to harvest the fear of pitiful fools. We end with the reveal that you, the reader, are fungible with a group from within this comic. You too can live the experience of playing a part in a story that’s certifiably told in the Mighty Marvel manner. You can step inside these very pages! You can enter this narrative directly! Not as a superhero or supervillain though, but never mind. For the price of a ticket to Universal Islands of Adventure YOU TOO can be a pitiful fool and assist in the final destruction of the Fantastic Four.

THREE

Hey…I tell you who drew this though. Only Mike Werringo! Only the sole definitive Fantastic Four artist of the Twenty-First Century! Why’s this issue not included in the Big Omnibus of his run, then? Probably because there’s no such Omnibus, now I think about it. That’s weird too.

It’d be cool if this was the first time he drew them, wouldn’t it? That’d be a fun take for me to go with, wouldn’t it? This century’s definitive vision of the Fantastic Four starts here in Marvel Super Hero Island Adventures!  But, nah. Werringo had already drawn an issue of Heroes Reborn. Fucking Heroes Reborn.

Werringo hasn’t devised those character models for the FF yet though. He’s almost there with Ben. This Werringo agrees with his future self on the matter of Ben’s shoulders; that they should ideally be one big continuous curve and that the rest of his physiology should fit in with that. Other than that though, they all look a bit generic.

Visuals aside, it’s interesting to look at what constitutes a ‘generic’ Fantastic Four in 1999. What’s the default form in which they’re seen to exist when abstracted from continuity?

In terms of characterisation then it’s all what you might expect. Reed’s the one who apprehends the situation and gives the orders (”Let’s move, people!”). Sue’s doing feats of endurance and moments of innovation. She and Reed do little coupley affirmations in the middle of combat. Ben does the punching and the catchphrase. Johnny gets so incensed by the idea of torture that he attempts murder.

Wait. What was that last one again? That’s not generic.

The page in question is just trying to do two things; characterise Johnny as impassioned and get us to the reveal that we’ve been dealing with a Doombot. But how it plays out is like this –

  • Johnny makes a status move, castigating Doom for the banality of the weapons  he’s deploying against them. “Come on, Doom. A fancy ray gun and purple dumbots – is that the best you can do? This is the Big Leagues, Buddy!” This is a great bit of trolling, as any version of Doom is going to be pissed off by the idea that the accursed Richards family occupy a station to which he is required to step up to.
  • Johnny switches to a position of principle, expressing outrage that Doom is torturing innocent people to power his fancy ray guys and informing him that it’s going to stop. “Right here! Right now!”
  • Johnny releases all his power at Doom in a firey inferno that both he and Reed clearly understand will kill him.

Nobody expresses any surprise at Johnny’s actions or castigates him for them. All that’s articulated is shock that this has failed to kill Doom. And all we can conclude is that, in the dark and gritty universe of Universal Islands of Adventure, the Fantastic Four routinely fight to the death.

There’s one more thing that’s worth pointing out about this FF, which is that they explicitly operate out of Four Freedoms Plaza. That’s a peculiar thing for this comic to specify as it’s neither their iconic home (The Baxter Building), their current home (Pier 4), or the building that Universal is hyping (Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall). It’s just the building that they lived in after the end of the Byrne run until the Thunderbolts blew it up. What’s it doing in this comic? I don’t know, but its presence does tell us two things. That Pier 4 was not expected to endure and that the return of the Baxter Building was not seen as inevitable.

FOUR

Doom’s plan in this story raises many questions. The first is what exactly it’s trying to achieve. There are numerous references to the destruction of the Fantastic Four, so we know that that’s a goal, but at one point he also enthuses about the destruction of all others who resist his will and the commencement of his reign of terror, so I think we have to suppose he’s shooting for that too.

The next question is how these goals are advanced by building a theme park attraction which elevates people to 185 feet before suddenly but safely returning them to ground level in an experience that Rob and Jennifer of Baltimore describe as a “Major rush.”

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Rob and Jennifer M. Baltimore ,FL

We know that this process of elevating people to 185 feet before suddenly but safely returning them to ground level allows Doom to harvest their fear and convert it to energy. It still seems quite a jump from there to the destruction of all who oppose your will. At best what Doom has here is a small power station. At worst what he has is a terribly inefficient one, as it’s hard to imagine that elevating people to 185 feet before suddenly but safely returning them to ground level and harvesting their fear isn’t a process that runs at a net energy loss.

There are no clues in the story as to how scaring theme park goers can possibly yield more energy than this method of doing so expends, but I suppose that Marvel mythology holds fear to be an extradimensional force. The Halls of Fear and the Nightmare Realm and so forth are all spaces which exist outside the physical universe. Presumably Doom isn’t drawing energy from his terrified punters, but through them, using their distress to siphon power from these metaphysical spaces.

The problem of what Doom is to do with this energy is solved on the last page with the introduction of the trans-thermal fusion dynamo, which it is to power. We’re given no indication as to what that is, or why Doom couldn’t just plug it in and run it off the mains like a normal person, but I’m sure it’s brilliant.

Actually, no… wait. Trans-thermal…fusiondynamo… all that phrase can possibly mean is a generator. Doom has built his rubbish power station in order to fuel… a better power station.  He’s a right nob sometimes. It’s no wonder that people have been dropping from his towers for seventeen years now and not only has he failed to conquer the world, he’s failed to even conquer the two adjacent Islands of Adventure (‘Toon Lagoon’ and ‘Port of Entry’). Though I like to imagine that he was getting close in 2010, only to be put in check when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter moved in opposite.

Nowadays, of course, it’s another quirky legacy of Marvel’s 90′s deals that Universal theme parks can have Marvel attractions while Disney theme parks, more or less, can not. Commentators on the theme park industry are watching all this very closely. There are eyes on every move Universal and Disney make. So there was a lively flurry of excitement last year when rumors started to circulate of secret construction work in the area behind Doom’s Fear Fall.

It’s both easy and appropriate to be cynical when talking about the business side of all this. But there’s something delightful about reading people speculating in all seriousness about mysterious secret buildings hidden behind Doctor Doom’s lair.